Leading haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis and politicians continued their frontal assault Tuesday against legislation to conscript yeshiva students into the army, as the working group drawing up the new law prepared to finalize the draft bill.
The legislation, which Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud) are drafting, will most likely be presented Wednesday evening, a Kadima source said, although delays could push it off to Thursday.
Speaking in Jerusalem at the annual conference of the haredi daily Hamodia on Tuesday, Ya’alon said that “there exists an opportunity to significantly increase the numbers of those performing national service,” and that he and the other members of the working group were making efforts to achieve this “without splitting the nation.”
He reported progress in the panel members’ deliberations over Plesner’s original recommendations.
The proposals will likely be toned down a bit, however, so that, for instance, the 80-percent enlistment rate Plesner initially specified for the haredi sector may fall to 70%.
The financial sanctions that Plesner recommended for individuals refusing to serve – a central point of opposition for the haredi Knesset factions – may also be toned down, although it is still unclear whether the fines for such individuals will remain in the draft bill.
Some haredi politicians, such as Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias of Shas, have indicated that these personal fines are unacceptable to them, although the retraction of tax breaks and welfare benefits for those not serving was something they could accept, albeit unwillingly.
Speaking to an audience of hundreds of haredi men in Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, Ya’alon said that the working group was trying to produce a “feasible” law that would allow for the gradual implementation of the reforms, and that would provide time for the different national service frameworks to prepare for the increase in people performing military or civilian service.
The minister and former IDF chief of staff described the issue as an “open wound” for those campaigning for a law mandating national service for all, and said the problem was a “political, national and social challenge.”
He also regretted the descent of the public discourse on the matter into “incitement, criticism and unconnected considerations.”
Ya’alon further vowed that the new law would not require enlistment at age 18 – a measure that the campaign for draft reform has demanded and that the haredi community fiercely opposes.
Among haredim, 18-year-old men are considered unprepared to confront society outside of their community, and the haredi rabbinic leadership insists that several years of religious study in yeshiva are necessary before young men can even contemplate national service.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman reiterated on Monday that his party would oppose any bill that did not mandate national service enlistment for everyone at age 18, including Arab citizens.
Ya’alon praised the increase in haredi men joining national service programs in recent years, saying the process had occurred “organically,” but noted that the High Court of Justice ruling in February that declared the Tal Law illegal had “constrained” the hands of the government.
Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), who also spoke at the conference, sharpened his party’s political threats against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, saying that “there are different parties in politics, and the Labor party is an alternative with which we have already [partnered] in the past.”
UTJ has consistently warned Netanyahu that it will not join a Likud-led coalition after the next elections in 2013 if there are dramatic changes in the status of yeshiva students.
Litzman accused the prime minister of a breach of trust, saying Netanyahu had broken the coalition agreement he had signed at the beginning of his government’s tenure, which stipulated that full-time yeshiva students wishing to defer national service indefinitely should be permitted to do so.
But the deputy health minister also said that UTJ would not “at this stage leave the government to give Kadima the pleasure” of receiving his party’s ministerial portfolios and committee chairmanships.
“Unless the rabbis instruct us otherwise, we’re staying,” he announced.
In a letter published Tuesday on the front page of Yated Ne’eman, the most influential daily newspaper in the haredi world, leading haredi figure Rabbi Haim Kanievsky warned of the “great danger” inherent in “interfering with the purity of the holy yeshivot,” and the “cruse of pure oil” that is the world of Torah study.
“It is incumbent on everyone able to do so, to protest, to alert, to spur and to encourage [those who study] Torah, and not the opposite, God forbid,” wrote Kanievsky.
Meanwhile, the hard-line Eda Haredit announced that it was organizing a children’s demonstration for Sunday. The haredi news website Kikar Hashabbat reported that the children might be handcuffed and would conduct a march through the haredi neighborhood of Mea She’arim.
UTJ MK Yisrael Eichler told the website that the purpose of draft reform legislation was to prevent haredi children from studying Torah.
Shas leader Eli Yishai also spoke at the Hamodia conference and accused Plesner of seeking to destroy the world of Torah study and Jewish tradition.
He added that the 80% enlistment target for the haredi sector that the Kadima MK had recommended was unrealistic and that such a rate was higher than in the secular community.
Also on Tuesday, MKs from Habayit Hayehudi and National Union convened with the leading rabbis of the national religious community and agreed to draft and present their own bill to replace the Tal Law.
Rabbis Zalman Melamed, Haim Druckman, Tzefania Drori and Eitan Eizman met with National Union MKs Ya’acov Katz and Uri Ariel and Habayit Hayehudi MKs Zvulun Orlev and Uri Orbach, and agreed that legislation should be based on the “supreme value of Torah study”; the “holy duty of all Jews to be partners in the preservation of the security of the State of Israel”; the necessity to preserve both values in the new law; and the illegitimacy of addressing the issue in a coercive way.
Political opposition within the coalition from Yisrael Beytenu, Shas, UTJ and possibly some Kadima rebels may mean that the government will need the votes of Habayit Hayehudi, and maybe even some MKs from Labor, in order to pass the bill now being drafted.
Habayit Hayehudi quit the Keshev Committee, which the prime minister initially tasked with formulating recommendations for draft reform, because Plesner, who headed the panel, did not mandate obligatory national service for Israeli Arabs. However, the party did not mention the issue of Arab enlistment in its media statement on Tuesday.