Lapid: Netanyahu continues to act as if Oct. 7 did not happen

Netanyahu says he’ll advance Haredi IDF enlistment bill that lowers exemption age

Gantz, who initially proposed the legislation 2 years ago, slams PM’s move: ‘Israel needs soldiers, not political tricks;’ Gallant also indicates opposition

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Soldiers study religious texts in the IDF's ultra-Orthodox 'Netzah Yehuda' unit at the Peles Military Base in the northern Jordan valley, August 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Soldiers study religious texts in the IDF's ultra-Orthodox 'Netzah Yehuda' unit at the Peles Military Base in the northern Jordan valley, August 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

After failing to come to an agreement with his Haredi coalition partners on legislation to enlist members of the ultra-Orthodox community into the Israel Defense Forces, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday announced that he would revive a 2022 bill to lower yeshiva students’ age of exemption from military service.

“In order to bridge the differences and bring about a broad consensus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to advance the conscription law that passed its first reading in the previous Knesset” and bring it to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Thursday, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

But his announcement drew immediate condemnation, including from war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, who had initially proposed the legislation two years ago, as being just another political maneuver.

Netanyahu called on all of the parties that initially supported the measure to come out in favor of it once more.

If passed, the legislation would lower the age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi Torah students from the current 26 to 21 while “very slowly” increasing the rate of ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

Ultra-Orthodox men of military age have been able to avoid being conscripted to the Israel Defense Forces for decades by enrolling in yeshivas for Torah study and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the age of military exemption.

Many yeshiva students are thought to remain in religious study programs longer than they normally would in order to dodge the draft by claiming academic deferments until they reach the age of exemption. By lowering the exemption age, the previous government hoped to spur those Haredi men to leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age.

Illustrative: Haredi students study at the Kamenitz Yeshiva, in Jerusalem, August 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Addressing Netanyahu directly in a statement, Gantz criticized the prime minister’s embrace of his old plan — which he had supported while serving as defense minister in the previous government.

“The State of Israel needs soldiers and not political exercises that tear the people apart during a war,” Gantz declared, insisting that his proposal had been advanced as an interim measure only.

In a subsequent video message, Gantz argued that “the law you are bringing is not the [military] service outline that I [advanced] in the previous government. It is not the service outline that I asked to promote in the current Knesset, and it certainly does not reflect the security needs of the state of Israel after October 7.”

“After October 7, the IDF needs soldiers, the State of Israel needs service members and not political exercises. If you continue on this path, you may solve a political problem” but the problem of inequality remains, he said.

When promoting the bill two years ago, Gantz insisted that it needed to be accompanied by efforts to extend the national service requirement to both Haredi and Arab Israelis.

During a press conference in February, Gantz and fellow National Unity minister Gadi Eisenkot presented an outline for the enlistment of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army, calling for an “absolute majority of young people” to serve their country. He subsequently complained that Netanyahu had ignored his proposal.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, also indicated that he would not support the current draft law.

“My position has not changed. Any draft law that will be acceptable by all parts of the coalition I will support. And a draft law that will be brought unilaterally by some of the coalition factions, I will not [allow it to pass] and the defense establishment will not advance it,” he said in response to a question at a press conference.

“This is a tricky political exercise that will not result in the recruitment of any yeshiva student,” the Movement for Quality Government declared in a statement — describing the bill as one that “perpetuates the disparities in recruitment obligations” between sectors of the population.

The watchdog group called on the public to attend a pro-enlistment rally Thursday evening in Tel Aviv.

War cabinet member Benny Gantz leaves a meeting in the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol in Washington, March 4, 2024 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Condemning Netanyahu for engaging in a “shameful wartime political exercise, while soldiers are being killed every day,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid promised that the opposition would fight against the bill “with all their strength.”

“Netanyahu continues to act as if October 7 did not happen. October 7 did happen. On his watch,” Lapid declared, inveighing against “discrimination between blood and blood.”

“We will not accept the Haredim continuing to shout ‘we will die and not enlist’ while our children continue to die because [the Haredim] did not enlist,” he said.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman also objected to the bill, declaring that “circumstances have changed” since Hamas’s October 7 attack and that the current security situation “requires a mandatory conscription law for everyone.”

“If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s another political maneuver by Netanyahu,” tweeted Labor chief Merav Michaeli. “Everyone knows they don’t intend to pass this law either, but to strip it of content in committee and continue to trample the Supreme Court.”

Ironically, though the bill would ostensibly make life easier for yeshiva students, it was also fiercely opposed by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who claimed it was a ploy to draw Haredim out of Torah studies and the Haredi way of life.

Asked if his party would continue to oppose the bill, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Roth told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that while it needed to consider its options, he thought it would have a better chance this time around.

Netanyahu’s decision to advance the two-year old legislation comes after he failed to hammer out an agreement on ultra-Orthodox enlistment with his Haredi coalition partners ahead of Wednesday’s cabinet meeting.

While details of that unsuccessful proposal — which was reportedly being negotiated between Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs and the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties — have not been made public, Haredi news site Kikar Hashabat reported that it would have represented significant concessions on the part of the Haredi representatives.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a road and clash with police near Bnei Brak during a protest against the enlistment of yeshiva students, April 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

According to the report, the intended legislation contained hard targets for recruitment, which would have triggered economic sanctions on yeshivas if left unfilled. Failure to meet the planned law’s requirement after a period of three years would have resulted in a general mobilization of yeshiva students. The bill would also have included a new oversight mechanism for the army to ensure that those granted an exemption for full-time yeshiva study are actually engaged in such activities.

In addition, the Israel Hayom daily reported that Fuchs believed it would have taken 10 years to reach the goals detailed in the plan, and had told cabinet ministers that it would allow for around 6,000-7,000 Haredi recruits per year.

The proposal had generated significant pushback among ultra-Orthodox spiritual leaders. In a letter to Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, Rabbi Moshe Tzedaka, a senior yeshiva dean, compared those pushing for ultra-Orthodox enlistment to Israel’s biblical foe Amalek and insisted that even those who are not engaged in full-time study must not enlist in the IDF.

The High Court holds a hearing over the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Those arguing for universal enlistment only seek to harm “the Torah-observant public” and are engaged in a “malicious plot,” requiring ultra-Orthodox politicians to “stand firm” against the government’s “decrees and against anyone who seeks to compromise with them,” Kikar HaShabbat quoted him as writing.

The High Court of Justice ruled in March that the state must cease subsidizing Haredi yeshivas whose students are eligible for the draft, since the legal framework for doing so has expired. As a result, Netanyahu has to deal with a severe political headache owing to the high priority Haredi political parties place on that funding.

The attorney general has also stated that there is no longer any legal framework to refrain from drafting eligible Haredi men into the army, meaning that there is now heavy political pressure on Netanyahu to come up with a legislative proposal that satisfies his Haredi coalition partners — or face a political crisis.

The High Court is scheduled to hear arguments over petitions demanding the immediate enlistment of Haredi yeshiva students on June 2. Although the government was to have presented the court with its legislative plans for increasing ultra-Orthodox enlistment by May 1, the court gave it an extension after the government failed to come up with concrete proposals.

Jeremy Sharon and Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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