(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid fired the opening shots on Wednesday of what is likely to be a fierce but ultimately doomed battle against the government’s amendments to the law for haredi conscription, when he challenged members of the coalition not to vote for the proposals.
He accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett of duplicity for having voted for the law in March 2014, while willingly proposing changes to remove its critical clauses and stipulations under the new government just 19 months later.
Lapid also directly addressed Construction Minister and former head of the IDF Southern Command Maj.-Gen (res.) Yoav Gallant of Kulanu, Finance Minister and Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon, as well as Culture Minister Miri Regev of the Likud and other coalition MKs, asking them if they would vote “against IDF soldiers” and approve the new law.
“The prime minister, the defense minister and the education minister voted four times in favor of equality in the share of the military burden,” said Lapid. “What are they saying now? When did they lie, now or then?” Speaking during a meeting of several haredi conscription campaign groups and activists in the Knesset, Lapid insisted that the law passed during the last government was working, that the numbers of haredi men enlisting was increasing and that the numbers of haredi men joining the workforce had significantly increased over the last year and a half as well, as a result of the law.
Haredi enlistment decreased when the public debate about the law was at its height, sliding by 40 percent in the first six months of 2014, compared to the preceding six-month period, most likely due to the bitter fight waged against it by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical and political leadership.
However, as the immediate rancor over the passage of the bill passed, conscription rates recovered to the levels seen before the law was passed of about 24 percent of the annual cohort.
The legislation approved in 2014 stipulated that increasing numbers of full-time ultra-Orthodox students would be required to enlist every year until 2017, when all such young men would be required to serve, aside from 1,800 exceptional students who would be given exemptions.
The 2017 date will now be pushed to 2020, under the terms of the amendment demanded by haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, and drawn up by the Defense Ministry. Should haredi enlistment quotas not be met in 2020, the legal obligation on fulltime yeshiva students to perform military or national service would not be automatically imposed, and the authority to impose this legal obligation would be given to the defense minister.
Some economic sanctions would apply to yeshivas if quotas are not met, but they would be determined by the prime minister, defense minister and finance minister.
Lapid accused the government of taking advantage of the current wave of terrorism and the attention of the public on that issue to pass the amendment.
The haredi parties have threatened that they will not approve the 2016 state budget, slated for a vote in Knesset later this month, unless the amendment to the law for haredi conscription is passed first, at least in its first reading.
Zahara Berger-Tzur, a member of the Forum for Equality in the Military Burden campaigning group, said that even though the current law was not perfect – the forum fiercely opposed it when it was being legislated in 2014 – it had given hope that it would lead to greater haredi participation in military and national service.
“We represent the silent voices in Israeli society, [and] in the name of thousands of people serving [in the military] I accuse the government of Israel of abandoning the people who serve, of abandoning the foundational values of Israeli society and of publicly selling out those who serve for a ‘mess of pottage,’” said Berger-Tzur.
Speaking on Army Radio on Wednesday, UTJ MK Meir Porush said that the law passed by the previous government was coercive and that such a system was unacceptable if it forced yeshiva students who wanted to continue with their full-time studies to leave their yeshivot.
“Whoever is sitting and learning should gain an exemption; if someone is not studying then he should be like everyone else,” said Porush. “If the army wants to draft haredi men who aren’t sitting and learning, if it speaks to them in this [coercive] manner, then nothing will happen.”