Steps to advance a new IDF conscription bill for Israel's ultra-orthodox (haredi) citizens will be taken "immediately," the Shas party said in a statement following a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of the haredi parties on Monday evening.
A draft of the bill, which Shas said would "regularize the status of yeshiva [religious academy] students," is already being prepared by professional bodies, the party said.
Shas added that at the directive of its spiritual leadership, the Torah Sages Council, the party's chairman MK Aryeh Deri held discussions in recent weeks with "all of the bodies" to come up with an "agreed-upon, long-term" law.
Degel Hatorah, the Lithuanian haredi faction that makes up one of the two factions in the United Torah Judaism party, added in a statement of its own on Monday night that "contrary to reports, our stance is that the processes to begin a conscription law begin immediately, and this is the position of all haredi representatives."
The reports that Degel Hatorah was referring to were that the haredi parties had agreed to postpone the legislation to the Knesset's winter session, which begins on October 15.
The meeting between Netanyahu and the haredi party leaders came after the Movement for Quality Government in Israel (MQG) pointed out in a motion to the Supreme Court on Monday morning that the current conscription law expires on June 30 – and not on July 31, as previously thought.
The existing law, which passed in 2014 and was amended in 2015, sets allotments of haredi draftees to the IDF per year and sanctions yeshivot that do not meet these allotments. However, in September 2017, the Supreme Court deemed the bill unconstitutional, since the exemption it gave was ruled to be too sweeping and thus violated the notion of equality. The court initially gave the Knesset a year to amend the bill, but this was delayed 15 times due to the recurring elections since then. The current extension lasts until July 31.
Current law is considered unconstitutional
MQG pointed out, however, that the current extension is mistaken, since the law itself – not the Supreme Court ruling to strike it down – says explicitly that it applies until June 30, 2023. Therefore, the IDF must by law begin the process of drafting eligible haredim on July 1, the MQG argued in its motion.
While the coalition can choose simply to extend the law, it would essentially be extending a law that was already deemed unconstitutional, which is unprecedented, according to the head of MQG's Policy and Legislation Branch, Hiddai Negev.
In 2012 the government faced a similar situation when a former conscription bill expired – and the government indeed began to send conscription notices to eligible yeshiva students. This led to a rise in haredi students joining the IDF, Negev explained.
The stated intention of the current conscription bill is to gradually increase the number of haredi conscripts into the IDF. A central reason that the Supreme Court ruled the bill unconstitutional was that the law was flawed in that it did not include mechanisms to ensure that this happens, and indeed did not lead to a rise in haredi conscription.
MGQ pointed out in its motion on Monday that paradoxically, the former law's expiration in 2012 is what actually led to the desired result – an increase of haredi conscripts – and therefore, a similar result could occur beginning on July 1.
According to the coalition agreements between the Likud and United Torah Judaism signed in late December, a new conscription bill was supposed to pass by the time the budget passed in late May. However, due to short timetables, the haredi parties agreed to drop the demand.
Prior to the haredi agreement to drop the demand, Netanyahu, Gallant and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich held a series of meetings in late April in order to come up with a version of a new law.
According to reports from those meetings, the general idea of the new law proposal was to enact a new policy of choosing equality in the “economic burden” over the “military burden” by lowering the exemption age for haredi men from 26 to between 21-23, thus enabling them to join the workforce earlier, while minimizing the inequality to soldiers by shortening the length of service and providing benefits for those who do serve.