Shas rabbi: IDF 'bluffing' with manpower shortage claims

Under pressure, PM revises Haredi enlistment plan but fails to satisfy critics

Opposition leader urges ministers to ditch government if bill advanced by ministers, as Netanyahu reportedly warns allies coalition will collapse without its approval

Ultra-Orthodox men protest outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men protest outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked on parts of his proposed Haredi enlistment law on Monday, releasing an amended version following pushback from within his coalition and a warning by the attorney general that she will be unable to defend the initial proposal in court.

The revised plan calls for setting annual recruitment targets in pursuit of a “significant and gradual increase” in enlistment by yeshiva students and graduates of ultra-Orthodox educational institutions and would impose financial penalties on yeshivas that fail to meet these quotas.

In addition, it stipulates that the IDF look into establishing a new ultra-Orthodox battalion as well as a civil technological service track and that the Defense Ministry take steps to prepare for the enlistment of previously exempt ultra-Orthodox men, Channel 12 reports.

The updated version — which is expected to be brought to the cabinet on Tuesday — removes from the measure a clause raising the military exemption age for yeshiva students to 35, which had generated widespread pushback among both opposition and coalition lawmakers.

While the plan states that no new deferrals will be granted nor extended while the new enlistment framework is being legislated, it also calls on the IDF to take no action to recruit full-time Talmud scholars during that period.

It also calls for the legislation to be submitted to the Knesset by May 22, so that it can go through three floor votes and be passed into law by the end of June; and states if the proposal expires without being implemented, the government’s previous instructions regarding not enlisting Haredim will no longer apply.

This change appears to have been made to counter charges that the government hopes to delay the legislation until the fall Knesset recess and thus push the issue into next year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, right, arriving for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The decision to amend the government’s proposal came after Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara warned that she would be unable to defend the proposed bill, and the Finance Ministry released figures showing the economy taking a hit of over NIS 100 billion ($27.5 billion) over the next decade if the army extended the time current recruits must serve rather than draft Haredim into the military.

Responding to the news of the reversal, National Unity party chairman and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz stated that while his party wants to come to an agreement on enlistment, it needed to see “a solution for recruitment, not an exemption from recruitment.”

“I cannot be part of a government that passes such a law at all, and especially during wartime,” Gantz said, reiterating his earlier threat to bolt the coalition.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid also came out strongly against the amended legislation, accusing the government of engaging in “fraud” and claiming that the government would not succeed in enlisting even one ultra-Orthodox soldier through such a measure.

Lapid’s words were echoed by the hawkish opposition politician Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu party has pushed its own universal draft proposal in recent months.

Liberman, a former defense minister, urged the High Court of Justice to reject the proposal, which he asserted would “perpetuate inequality and [draft] evasion,” and called on Gantz and Eisenkot to “resign from the government immediately.”

“I also call on Likud ministers to strongly oppose the decision, which constitutes treason in the view of [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky and [Joseph] Trumpeldor, who consecrated military service for the sake of Israel and the homeland,” he continued, referring to two early Zionist figures revered by the Israeli right.

Responding to rising discontent among his political allies, Prime Minister Netanyahu was said to tell ministers in his Likud party on Monday that without passing the law, his government would collapse.

According to Kan, Netanyahu sent a message to ministers in his Likud party that he will not give up on the legislation. Coalition ministers reportedly spoke to people close to Netanyahu to explore the possibility of not supporting the law.

A number of ultra-Orthodox politicians, such as United Torah Judaism leader and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, have recently expressed a willingness to discuss the enlistment of Haredi young men who are not scholars, but have threatened that if even “one real yeshiva student has to close his Talmud, there will be no government.”

In an interview with ultra-Orthodox media last week, Rabbi Moshe Maya, a senior member of Shas’s leading Council of Torah Sages, rejected the notion that the IDF is facing a manpower shortage requiring the enlistment of Haredim, calling such claims “bluffs and incitement.”

Even those who do not learn full-time in yeshiva should not enlist, Maya insisted, arguing that Haredi Torah learning provides the basis for Israel’s right to exist and that military service would lead ultra-Orthodox soldiers to abandon religion.

In addition to political obstacles, the legislation faces legal and financial hurdles too.

Baharav-Miara, the attorney general, warned that she would be unable to defend the previous proposal if it was challenged in court, due to unspecified “significant and essential difficulties.”

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara arrives to cast her ballot for the head of the Israel Bar Association at a voting station in Tel Aviv on June 20, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In addition, a memorandum drawn up by the Finance Ministry’s budgets department found that a proposed extension of mandatory military service would cost the economy NIS 104 billion ($28.5 billion) over the next decade and require the government to shell out an extra NIS 41 billion ($11 billion), Channel 12 news reported Sunday.

The memo, signed by department chief Yogev Gardos, noted that if the Haredi community enlisted at rates similar to the non-Haredi Jewish community, mandatory service, which is currently at 32 months for men and 24 months for women, could be cut by seven months, and reservists would only need to be called up for a few days every year, instead of several weeks.

The paper also found that forcing Haredi men to remain out of the labor pool until they are in their mid-30s to receive exemptions would cause “long-term damage to the Israeli market and economy.”

Ultra-Orthodox men of military age have been able to avoid the draft for decades by enrolling in yeshivas for Torah study and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the age of military exemption at 26.

However, many young ultra-Orthodox men who do not study full-time are reportedly enrolled in yeshivas in order to avoid the draft, according to Hebrew media.

As initially reported on Sunday, the first draft of Netanyahu’s proposed outline did not set a specific quota of ultra-Orthodox men enlisting per year. Instead, it set the age of exemption from service at 35, and ensured that Haredi men who failed to enlist would not face criminal sanctions. It also included a plan to set up special ultra-Orthodox battalions in the IDF and add Haredi positions in the country’s emergency services and government offices.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — who has stated he cannot support any legislation passed without broad agreement from all coalition parties, especially Gantz’s — had also rejected Netanyahu’s initial plan, saying on Sunday that a flexible agreement on the issue was “essential for the existence and success of the IDF,” and appealed for a compromise to be found.

Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, the government has called up a total of 287,000 reservists, announced earlier-than-planned draft dates for some 1,300 members of pre-army programs, and pushed to significantly increase both conscripts’ and reservists’ periods of service.

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)

That latter plan, presented by the defense establishment last month, generated fierce backlash among lawmakers from across the political spectrum and encouraged multiple legislative pushes to end the de facto exemptions for the Haredim.

According to the IDF’s Personnel Directorate, some 66,000 young men from the Haredi community received an exemption from military service over the past year, said to be an all-time record.

A law that authorizes these exemptions expired in June 2023, and a temporary regulation that extended it is set to expire next week, after which the military will not be legally authorized to exempt Haredi young men from the draft and will need to start enlisting them.

As the deadline nears, the government has been rushing to legislate a new version of the law, with the ultra-Orthodox parties demanding continued exemption while other coalition factions, including members of Likud and the far-right Religious Zionist party, have been demanding that the Haredi community performs military service.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which has petitioned the High Court of Justice to enlist the ultra-Orthodox, accused the government of engaging in “the same shticks and tricks” by floating and then reversing a change to the age of exemption.

“Equality in the burden is an existential necessity for the State of Israel and Israeli society, and there is no way to achieve it other than the enactment of a uniform and equal recruitment law that will apply to all,” the watchdog group said in a statement on Monday.

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