(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The Likud will act to limit the number of yeshiva students who are exempted from army service, if as polls indicate, the party returns to power after the next general election, Likud officials said Thursday.
The officials accused Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor of trying to deflect criticism for giving into Shas on other issues by leaking to the press that he was blocking hundreds of students at 61 new yeshivot from receiving exemptions from the military.
Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu hinted that Barak would be his defense minister if he returned to the Prime Minister's Office when he announced last year at a press conference with Florida Gov. Charlie Christ that he would form a national-unity government with Labor. His coalition would also likely include religious parties that would try to block drafting additional yeshiva students.
If the Likud would keep the Defense portfolio, candidates would probably include former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya'alon, MK Yuval Steinitz, former minister Dan Meridor and former OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Peled.
Steinitz, a former chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that as defense minister, he would change the system that currently allows more than 30,000 haredim to avoid army service, some 11 percent of 18-year-olds.
"It's not a matter of numbers, but of ethics," Steinitz said. "I can accept that a few hundred scholars would be selected to study, as in the time of David Ben-Gurion. But the current situation of thousands of ultra-Orthodox boys not serving in the IDF is intolerable and should be changed, not because we urgently need more soldiers, but because we need the feeling that all sectors are sharing in the mission of protecting our homeland."
Steinitz said that haredi fears of their young men being put in situations that would make it difficult to maintain their religious fervor could be assuaged by allowing them to serve close to their homes and to live in their communities, and by drafting them later in life.
Coalition chairman Eli Aflalo, whose Kadima party has gotten caught in the middle of disputes between Labor and Shas, criticized Barak for creating an unnecessary provocation.
"Barak might be right about drafting the yeshiva students, but it is important to be smart and not just right," Aflalo said. "He should handle such a serious problem more sensitively, with dialogue to find the happy medium instead of acting from his gut instinct and going to the press."
Barak and other Labor cabinet ministers called Shas chairman Eli Yishai and Communications Minister Ariel Attias, also from Shas, to downplay the story. Barak's associates said the issue was merely technical and that he did not leak the story to the press.