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Yesh Atid threatens coalition over Haredi draft dispute

Yair Lapid’s party insists that shirkers face prosecution, while Likud wants to keep individual sanctions out of the legislation

Illustrative photo of bearded religious soldiers. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of bearded religious soldiers. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Likud and Yesh Atid parties were at loggerheads Monday, with the ruling party’s largest partner threatening to bolt the coalition over a clause in a proposal for drafting the ultra-Orthodox that imposes criminal penalties on draft dodgers.

If new rules for drafting ultra-Orthodox into the army will not allow for meaningful penalties against youths who shirk their obligations, “we have no reason to remain in the coalition,” Education Minister Shai Piron of Yesh Atid threatened.

The heated words came after a meeting of the Peri Committee, a panel tasked with hammering out the new rules for drafting youth into the army, fell apart at 1 a.m. Monday.

“We have an historic opportunity to effect change,” Piron said in an interview with Army Radio a few hours after the talks ceased. “I wasn’t out for a job; I didn’t come to the Knesset because I was bored; we came to effect historic change. If we see that we’re unsuccessful then what’s the use of all of this.”

“The behavior of the the Likud-Beytenu ministers in the Peri Committee meetings… is an outright violation of the coalition agreements,” the Yesh Atid party said in a statement, warning that failure to implement a truly equitable draft law “puts the continued existence of the coalition in danger.”

A Likud source reportedly said in response that “Yesh Atid is making a racket and someone there [in the party] is trying to take the public for a ride.”

If Yesh Atid’s 19 MKs were to exit the coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be left with 49 seats, 12 fewer than the 61-seat majority needed to govern.

While Yesh Atid is seeking to include clauses in the new conscription law that will stipulate how draft dodgers can be pursued under criminal law, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon wanted those measures to be left solely to him or those who followed him in the post. Yesh Atid is concerned that such a situation would in effect enable ultra-Orthodox youth to avoid national service without fear of serious repercussions.

According to the Maariv daily, sources close to Ya’alon said that in earlier meetings it was clearly understood that criminal sanctions were not to be pursued and there was general agreement to avoid any provocative actions.

The termination of the Peri Committee meeting followed several hours in which the panel found broad consensus over other points from its recent draft proposal.

The main bone of contention arose between Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, who heads the eponymous group drafting the new rules, and Ya’alon. The two agreed to meet again in an attempt to hash out their differences later on Monday.

Ya’alon said before the meeting that he would oppose any measure that automatically criminalized ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers. However, Peri and the Yesh Atid party consider sanctions a central part of the plan, which is intended to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into military or national service.

In the disputed clause of the draft proposal, individuals who do not register for the draft would be subject to criminal prosecution, as would yeshiva heads whose institutions do not comply with the new law. The bill also mandates incentives and penalties for yeshivas according to their compliance with the registration rules.

However, sources close to Ya’alon told Ynet that Yesh Atid had agreed in coalition talks that automatic sanctions would not be on the table. During the meeting the panel agreed on most of the draft proposal’s measures, including a limited number of exemptions for top young Torah scholars and a quota to be filled for Arab youths to perform national service.

Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party, which also supports the universal draft, played down the seriousness of the divide between the parties, assessing that a solution would be reached soon.

“I’m sure that we will get together in a room and work on this for a day, or two, or three, and we’ll find a gradual solution without any swordplay,” he told Army Radio.

The panel also agreed to lengthen army service for those in the religious hesder serve/study program by a month, and not by eight months, as was originally proposed.

Hesder students currently spend 16 months in service and several more years in yeshiva study.

The proposal mainly deals with how to draft the ultra-Orthodox, after the High Court last year ruled that the Tal Law, which gave ultra-orthodox yeshiva students nearly full exemptions, was unconstitutional.

According to the draft proposal, 18-year-old yeshiva students engaged in full-time Torah study would be allowed to defer service until age 21, at which point they would have to choose either to enlist in the IDF or register for national or civil service. Those who defer their service would have to be registered at yeshivas whose student bodies are subject to regular government auditing. Yeshivas that receive state funding and register their students for service deferment would also be required to introduce vocational training into their curriculum.

The bill allows for 1,800 top Torah scholars to be entirely exempted from service per year, far below the estimated 7,000-8,000 ultra-Orthodox 18-year-olds who do not currently register each year.

The proposed legislation also features changes to the general conscription framework, including a shortening of service for all males from 36 to 32 months, and an extension of service for females to 28 months, up from 24.

Most of the changes would roll out in 2016, including the criminal prosecution of individuals who do not register for the draft, allowing for a transitional period in which to build up the bureaucratic and logistical infrastructure needed to implement the changes.

The bill sets gradual, increasing recruitment goals for the ultra-Orthodox, beginning this year with the goal of 2,000 registrations for the IDF and another 1,300 for national and civil service. It also sets a 6,000-per-year recruitment goal for Israeli Arabs into national service.

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