The cabinet and the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill to draft haredim into the army by 2017 on Sunday, but activists who have campaigned for the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men panned it as “a decisive blow” against that goal.

The bill passed by a vote of 14-0, with four abstentions from Yisrael Beytenu ministers, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, and Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, as well as Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel of Bayit Yehudi.

The Yisrael Beytenu ministers abstained because the bill did not include provisions for obligatory enlistment of Israeli Arabs to some form of national service, while Ariel abstained because of opposition to criminal punishment for haredim who do not enlist.

The bill is now expected to come to the Knesset for its first reading next Wednesday after which it passes to a special committee headed by Bayit Yehudi MK Ayelet Shaked for further deliberation.

“After 65 years we are bringing for cabinet approval the guidelines for increasing equality in the [military and tax] burdens,” Netanyahu said at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting.

The prime minister said this would be done gradually, with “consideration for the special needs of the haredi population.”

He said integrating ultra- Orthodox youth into the work force was no less important than drafting them into the army or national service.

Yesh Atid leader and Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his party colleague Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, who headed the committee that drafted the bill, lauded the new legislation, but the Forum for Equality in the Burden of Service, a campaign group, said that satisfaction with the draft law was misplaced.

The group declared that there would be no increase in haredi enlistment over the next four years, and charged Lapid with conducting a campaign of “spin” while accusing the media of buying into it.

“It’s unclear why the press has subjugated itself to Lapid’s spin and is reporting as if a law for equal service has been passed,” the group wrote in a statement to the media. “What the government has approved today is a decision to postpone haredi enlistment for another four years.”

The forum is taking issue with clauses in the bill that will only mandate obligatory service in 2017. In addition, the draft law will allow anyone who is 22 and over on the day the law is passed to receive an automatic exemption from military service and enable them to enter the work force.

Anyone who is between 18 and 22 when the law is enacted will be encouraged to enlist but will be able to defer service until age 24, after which he will be eligible for a full exemption and be allowed to join the work force.

Anyone who is 18 and under when the law is passed will be obligated to enlist, but will be able to defer service until age 21, which, if the law is passed this year, will be 2016.

Critics of the bill are concerned that the interim period provided for under the Peri law will lead to a decline in haredi enlistment from current recruitment rates, which in 2011 stood at almost 30 percent when taking IDF and civilian service enlistment together.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the bill is that from 2017 and onward, a haredi yeshiva student aged 21 refusing to serve will be subject to the Law for the Security Services of 1986, providing for the imprisonment of anyone evading the draft.

Although this law is applicable to all other Jewish Israelis, critics of the bill have argued that the coercive nature of the measure will generate reflex opposition to enlistment in the haredi community and its rabbinic leadership and lead to a blanket ban on enlistment by leading rabbis.

Other provisions of the bill allow for granting full exemptions to 1,800 outstanding Torah scholars, and financial penalties against haredi yeshivot that do not fulfill enlistment quotas.

Lapid, who made this issue the centerpiece of his party’s successful election campaign, told reporters before the meeting that Sunday was a “historic day.”

“After 65 years we are finally correcting this aberration, for the benefit of haredi society, and for the benefit of Israeli society as a whole,” he said.

Lapid enthused that this was an exceptional achievement on an issued that brought down previous governments and ended political careers.

“Three-and-a-half months since the establishment of this government we are passing a historic change. This is something big for all of us,” he said.

As could be expected, the haredi political leadership denounced the bill with senior United Torah Judaism MK Ya’acov Litzman calling it the act “of a destructive government which wants to destroy the Torah in the Land of Israel.” He declared: “Those who study Torah, the holy yeshiva students, would rather go to jail, to suffer financial sanction and take any other punishment for the sin of learning Torah.

“Anyone who thinks that those who study Torah will capitulate to coercion, force, sanctions, decrees and threats is mistaken, badly mistaken,” said Litzman.

He apportioned particular blame for the law to Bayit Yehudi and said that its leaders and voters bore personal responsibility for “the foundation, establishment and support of this terrible and evil government which harms those who study Torah, the disadvantaged, the middle class and all Israeli citizens.”

MK Meir Porush, also of UTJ, said it was a sad day for haredi Judaism that would be recorded as “a black day in the history of the Jewish settlement.”

“The abuse of the haredi minority borders on persecution and cruelty,” Porush said.

Before Sunday’s cabinet meeting began, Ariel announced that he would abstain in the vote on the bill, and expressed hope that it would be changed in the Knesset, when a committee led by Bayit Yehudi faction chairwoman Shaked would work on the legislation.

“We in the Bayit Yehudi successfully took a bad law that is disconnected from reality and reached an agreed-upon outline that works to integrate the haredi public in a gradual, patient way,” Ariel said, while criticizing the section of the bill instating criminal sanctions for those who do not enlist.

However, Ariel pointed to several changes in the legislation that he called successes, including requiring all women to enlist, increasing the number of exemptions for outstanding yeshiva students from 150 to 1,800 haredim and 300 religious Zionists, raising the enlistment age for haredim from 18 to 21 and increasing hesder yeshiva students’ service by only two months.

Bayit Yehudi said the party’s other two ministers, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Pensioners Affairs Minister Uri Orbach, voted in favor of the bill, but supported Ariel’s objections.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar opposed increasing service for women to 28 months, saying that it increases inequality between those who serve and those who don’t.

“There is a lot of draft-dodging by women who claim they are religious even though they don’t live a religious lifestyle,” Sa’ar said. “The demographic basis of women serving in the IDF is shrinking, and it is unfair to increase the length of their service.”

Sa’ar, former chairman of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women, expressed hope the legislation will undergo changes in the Knesset.

Hatnua called the bill “partial and not devoid of defects,” but voted in its favor because it is “a compromise meant to increase the number of haredim that enlist.”

The party spoke out against the bill’s discrimination in favor of hesder yeshiva students, calling for full equality and saying it plans to bring the issue up again in four years, when haredim will be recruited to the IDF.

“Hatnua plans to work to increase the number of Israeli Arabs serving in civilian service, and the Environmental Protection Minister [Amir Peretz] and Finance Minister agreed to promote a program for environmental civilian service for minorities,” a party spokeswoman stated.

But MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) levied strong criticism against the bill, saying that by approving the bill, “the government is perpetuating a bluff sanctioned by law,” focusing particularly on the designated maximum age for enlistment.

“Everyone knows that the IDF can’t absorb 21-year-old haredim with children, so the decision made this morning will make the situation even worse than it is now,” Cabel charged. “You don’t fix an injustice with another injustice.”

According to Cabel, it would be better to double the number of yeshiva students exempt from service and have everyone else enlist at age 18.

He added that the government missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix a 65-year-old mistake.

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