The Knesset’s special committee dealing with legislation on haredi (ultra-Orthodox) enlistment approved a general reduction in military service for men, from 36 months to 32.
The central concern of the Special Committee for the Equal Sharing of the Burden Bill – whether or not to implement mandatory service on haredi yeshiva students by force of law – will not be dealt with until at least next week.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did, however, comment on the issue during the Likud’s faction meeting, and indicated he was not in favor of any measure that could lead to the detention of yeshiva students.
“I don’t believe that we will get to a situation that someone will sit in jail for studying Torah,” he said, in his first comments on the controversial bill for several months.
The clause to shorten service for men was part of Yesh Atid’s election manifesto. The party maintains that the IDF could save money by shortening the service of men who do not serve in critical units, and that the economy would be boosted by getting such men into the workforce earlier.
The legislation, however, does not differentiate between those who serve in critical units and those who do not.
The party also says that anyone obligated to serve in the army as a conscript would welcome a reduction in the service’s length.
Bayit Yehudi MK Mordechai Yogev argued strongly against the clause, saying it was “unprofessional and irresponsible” and claiming that the economic and security effects of the decision had not been adequately investigated.
“It could cause a serious [manpower] shortage in the combat and technical frameworks of the IDF,” Yogev said.
Brig.-Gen. Gadi Agmon of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate said the army had presented comprehensive frameworks for reforms to the length of service, including service reduction for men as well as increasing the service for women and increased numbers of haredi enlistment. But he said that it would be hard for the IDF to deal with only a partially implemented framework for service length reforms.
The bill proposes to lengthen the period of service for women, but since only 52 percent of women serve in the IDF, it is claimed that increasing their service increases the inequality between those who serve and the many who do not.
Representatives of the IDF have been asked to provide alternatives to a blanket service extension for women. This may include a stipulation that women seeking to serve in positions of “significant service” will be required to serve for an extra eight months, while those doing less substantial jobs in the army will still be able to serve for the current 24 months.
In another crucial vote, an amendment proposed by committee member MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) to increase the service performed by those in the hesder yeshiva program to 24 months, from the current 16, was defeated. MKs Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu) voted in favor of the amendment, but it failed to gain the requisite number of votes.
Instead, hesder yeshiva students are to serve 17 months, as agreed several months ago in the committee.
Discussion of the amendment became heated when Yogev heavily criticized Stern, who is from the national religious community, for proposing the service extension for yeshiva students.
Stern says that the significantly shorter military service required of those in the hesder program, compared to other conscripts, is not justifiable and should be rectified.
Bayit Yehudi and the national religious community place extreme importance on the program and its current composition, however, and are fiercely opposed to altering it.
Yogev reacted angrily to Stern’s comments during the hearing and said that he would “not allow MK Stern to destroy an institution that was awarded an Israel Prize and to denigrate it from every possible platform... and to continue in an obsessive manner to slander this great enterprise.”
Meanwhile, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi were still yet to come to an agreement on the issue of sanctions.
Shelah, the Yesh Atid representative on the committee, said on Army Radio Monday morning that the law would definitely include a legal obligation on haredim to perform national service.
“At the end of the day there will be obligatory service if the haredi community does not fulfill enlistment targets... they will have the same obligations as the secular community,” the MK said.
Committee chairwoman Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) said on the same program that the committee would succeed in reaching an agreement that all coalition parties could agree on and that would not create a rift with haredi society.
Sources in Bayit Yehudi told The Jerusalem Post that behind-the-scenes negotiations were ongoing on this issue.
One possibility for compromise that has been suggested is that the imposition of a legal requirement for obligatory service for haredi men be delayed until after 2017, when the law is supposed to take full effect.
In this situation, the law would be established on a temporary basis. If the haredi community fulfills the established targets for enlistment, the law could be extended, but if not, it would be allowed to expire and mandatory service by force of law would come into effect.
But Shas MK Ariel Attias cast doubts on Bayit Yehudi’s willingness to prevent the imposition of legally required military service on haredi men.
“They’re trying to achieve this vague kind of text where it will not be clear that it does actually consist of criminal sanctions,” Attias told haredi radio station Kol Barama.
Speaking during Yesh Atid’s faction meeting, party chairman Yair Lapid said that “everyone needs to serve and everyone needs to provide their own income.”
He rejected the phrase “criminal sanctions” as used to describe his party’s efforts to establish a legal obligation for haredim to perform national service.
“We’re simply saying that the Law for the Security Services will also apply to haredim” as it does for all other Jewish men eligible for military duty, he said.