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Israeli parliament heads for new round of discussions on Yeshiva conscription

Israeli police arrest ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest against conscription in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem on February 9, 2017
AHMAD GHARABLI (AFP/File)
Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students have been largely exempt from serving in the army since 1949

Israel’s Defense Ministry announced on Monday its recommendation for reaching a legislative compromise on the issue of enlisting ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students to the army, which has been shelved since March when the governing coalition almost dissolved over the issue.

The Defense Ministry’s proposal recommends “setting new goals for the IDF and National Service draft, annual increase in those serving, significant financial sanctions on draft dodgers and increasing benefits and remuneration for those who serve.”

The proposal aims at recruiting 4,000 Yeshiva students in 2018, which would then increase by 8 percent per year for the first three years, 6.5% for the three years after that and 5% for the following four years.

If the numbers are not met by at least 95%, sanctions will be put in place cutting state funds to Yeshiva students, according to the Defense Ministry’s recommendation.

“The number of recruits from the ultra-Orthodox community has increased 10-fold in the last decade. We should continue the efforts to progressively increase the amount of recruits to the IDF and National Service,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

“The IDF has a need for ultra-Orthodox recruits and the ability to absorb them in the best possible way for the army in a way that contributes to their continued employment in the work market,” the statement continued.

However the Defense Ministry’s proposal recommends that Yeshiva students should be drafted from the age of 24 as opposed to the existing arrangement for every other Israeli who is drafted at the age of 18.

Women and men in Israel serve respectively 2 and 3 years in the army from when they are 18 whereas ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students have been largely exempt from doing so since Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and then Defense Minister in 1949 exempted Yeshiva students from military service arguing that “their studies are their craft.”

AP Photo/Uriel Sinai, Pool

The proposal also allows for Yeshiva students who left the Orthodox community before the age of 18 to be included as part of the 4,000 draftees, while arguing that “The principle of universal conscription is a key value and is necessary to preserve the IDF as the national state army.”

In March, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s fragile coalition was sent into a tailspin when head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party Yaakov Litzman threatened not to support the government’s 2019 state budget if the exemptions bill was not approved, putting them at loggerheads with Defense Minister and head of the secular Yisrael Beytenu party Avigdor Liberman, who vowed to vote down the legislation.

The coalition parties reached a compromise just before the parliament went on a recess postponing the issue which has to be resolved by September this year, due to a ruling from Israel’s High Court of Justice last year which struck down the existing arrangement of exempting Yeshiva students from military service on grounds that it undermines the principle of equality before the law.

However, Litzman threatened last week to leave the government if a conscription bill is not passed into law by the time parliament goes on a summer recess on June 22.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have submitted a proposal for a Basic Law which will see Yeshiva studying as a form of official service, thus exempting them from military service.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Sunday that the legislative process would begin when the Defense Ministry’s recommendation had been received, which means that the parliament will pick up where they left in March when a compromise was reached to postpone the issue.

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