In an embarrassment for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition, the IDF draft bill for haredim (ultra-Orthodox) fell in a 54-54 vote on its first reading Monday night.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu came to vote against the bill despite canceling three speeches at the Knesset on Monday.
Ra’am (United Arab List) leader Mansour Abbas voted for the bill, but his faction colleague Mazen Ghanaim did not attend the vote. Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi surprised the coalition by voting against it to protest the coalition passing the controversial citizenship bill in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Sunday.
The Supreme Court had ruled that the draft bill must be passed by the end of the month. Bennett and his ministers said the bill would be resubmitted immediately and brought back to the plenum within weeks.
Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi blasted Abbas, saying he “never thought he would see Arabs vote to encourage more soldiers to join the occupation army.” He warned that passing the bill would lead to drafting Arabs.
Earlier, Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid boasted that passing the bill would be proof that his Yesh Atid Party kept its promises.
“It’s not the ideal bill, but it will lead to more haredim serving in the IDF and national service and working to support their families,” he told his faction in the Knesset. “The bill is not anti-haredi. We are writing history together.”
The proposed law includes plans to recruit haredim into the military and lower the age of exemption to 21 for those who prefer to remain learning in a yeshiva. The lowering of the age will be in effect for two years.
After 24 months, the exemption age will rise to 22. A year later, it will increase to 23.
Even after the age rises, haredim will be able to complete their service at the age of 21 on condition they join the workforce through a track that provides professional training.
The bill sets out annual targets for the number of haredi men to be enlisted per year beginning in 2021. It very slowly increases rates of enlistment for the annual cohort of haredi men turning 18.
Should enlistment targets not be met, the bill provides for a reduction in the state budget for yeshivas, money that is distributed to recognized yeshivas for the purposes of paying students a monthly stipend.
“The purpose of the proposal is to act, as far as possible, to promote equality in service, by increasing the number of haredi servicemen in the IDF and by expanding the ranks of those serving in the national civil service,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said while presenting the bill. “This, [recognizes] the value of Torah study... under the understanding that not all yeshiva students will serve tomorrow morning or at all.”
The IDF is working to expand service options tailored to the haredi public that will ensure they can preserve their identity, he said. The military is also working to establish options that could help haredim enter the workforce, he added.
The government will form a team to advance a new service framework that will adapt the IDF to “the next 70 years,” with the view that there is a need to expand the ranks and promote the value of equality, Gantz said.
While an absolute majority must serve, not everyone can or needs to serve in the IDF, he said, adding that many national-service options will also be established in other civilian and security entities.
“This is one of the most complex, important and significant reforms for Israel’s security and Israeli society,” Gantz said.
The Draft Law is the first step in formulating an overall national-service framework, he said.
There are also mechanisms in the law to ensure compliance with its goals, Gantz said. “I am sure we will not need to use these mechanisms,” he told the haredi MKs in the Knesset plenum.
Reform is needed not just for the haredi sector, but for all of Israeli society in terms of the IDF draft, Gantz said.
“The current situation, in which half of 18-year-olds in Israel do not enlist, undermines basic Israeli resilience,” he said. “Therefore, we will do anything to reach agreements and determine [national service] routes that will allow everyone to serve.
“If we can recruit haredim for a period of service in charitable institutions, it will be a great mitzvah. If we include Arabs in strengthening informal education systems, we will also contribute to Arab society and its well-being.
“This is true for other sectors, for different groups and sometimes also for specific people. The message is one: We need everyone, and everyone has a place,” Gantz said.
United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev said the law “undermines the foundation of our existence,” telling Ra’am it “has no moral right to support this law.”
“I believe wholeheartedly that the duty to study the Torah and its existence is what gives the people of Israel the right to exist,” he said. “It is our soul of life. It is the main and exclusive pillar of support. It is the cornerstone and foundation for our moral and practical existence. The army is not a value, but a security need. The Torah is a value, and when there is Torah study, the need for an army is small.”
UTJ MK Meir Porush criticized the law, saying: “[With] a government of Jews that enacts such a law, it is preferable that such a state not even exist.”
“What annoys us is that the people of Ra’am are receiving budgets while we are not, and they are telling us to go to the army,” he said. “Does that sound rational?”
Shas leader Arye Deri said the Draft Law was a “political law, whose entire purpose is to harm Torah learners and discriminate against Torah learners.”
“I turn to the members of Ra’am,” he said. “You have no moral right to decide concerning Jews and haredim who will serve in the army and who will not. It’s a red line. If you raise a hand in favor of the Draft Law, we will not give up any possible action in the High Court of Justice to recruit Arabs to the army.”
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.