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Likud members said to object to Haredi draft law, potentially imperiling government

Coalition members are increasingly warning they will not support a planned law facilitating increased exemptions for Haredim from military service, Hebrew media reports said Thursday, potentially imperiling the current government as dueling sides within the ruling bloc indicate a willingness to call early elections over the divisive issue.

At least six lawmakers for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party have said in private that they won’t vote for the currently planned bill to lower the age at which ultra-Orthodox men can gain permanent exemptions from being drafted to the army, Army Radio reported.

One Likud MK, Tally Gotliv, said so openly, telling the Kan public broadcaster: “I won’t vote for the draft law in its current form. This isn’t the time for a draft law… it doesn’t make any sense for me to give an exemption to a person who studies at a yeshiva for three years.”

Kan also cited unnamed coalition sources as saying the amount of resistance to the bill is greater than it seems and stretches through all the non-Haredi coalition parties — Likud and the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit.

An unnamed coalition MK was reported to warn that the draft law, not the ultra-divisive judicial overhaul, could end up being the government’s downfall. Another unnamed lawmaker was quoted as saying the public backlash against the draft law would also come from voters who otherwise support the government, since “the right doesn’t support draft-dodging.”

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Conversely, the two Haredi parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas, have for weeks been threatening to topple the government if the draft law isn’t passed as soon as possible, according to various reports citing anonymous officials.

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

These reports were confirmed Wednesday when UTJ chief Yitzhak Goldknopf told the Kikar Hashabbat news site that the Haredi parties have told Netanyahu they will vote against any judicial overhaul bill as long as the currently proposed draft law hasn’t passed.

Asked whether this meant that “without a draft law there is no government,” Goldknopf said: “It’s possible, yes, it seems like that.”

According to Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu has pledged to the ultra-Orthodox parties that a legislative memorandum for the draft bill would be previewed in the Knesset’s upcoming winter session in October.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk alongside Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The government’s tentative proposal would lower the age of final exemption from the army from the current 26 to 23 or 21.

While soldiers are generally drafted from age 18, many yeshiva students claim academic deferments and are thought to remain in religious study programs longer than they otherwise would in order to dodge the draft until they reach the age at which they can be permanently exempt. By lowering the permanent exemption age, the government hopes to encourage those Haredi men to leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age.

The Haredi population of Israel overwhelmingly opposes performing mandated national civil or military service, seeing it as a way for secular forces to potentially draw away its members. Some more extreme elements in the Haredi community have protested violently against military conscription.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has long been reported to support reducing the age of exemption to 23, but on condition that another bill is passed that would give additional benefits to soldiers and veterans, handing combat soldiers and others in essential roles a significant pay raise while soldiers in nonessential positions would serve less time.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) (Yonatan Sindel; Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu held a meeting on the matter Wednesday evening with Gallant and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, but reports indicated no breakthrough was made.

Kan, citing an unnamed source familiar with the discussions, reported Wednesday that the Finance Ministry has said it has no way to fund the plans, putting the Haredi draft bill in jeopardy, and that Smotrich told Gallant that they would require “imaginary” sums of money.

Objections to the draft law have also been heard from top military officials. On Wednesday, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said Israel must continue the so-called “people’s army” model — one in which all citizens are meant to serve in the military.

“This is a model that requires conscripting from as many parts of the Israeli population as possible. With the right adjustments, there is a place and a way to implement this in the developing Israeli society,” he said.

“Our position is clear: draft for all,” Halevi added.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi speaks at a ceremony, September 6, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

In 2017, the High Court of Justice invalidated a conscription law that gave sweeping exemptions to full-time religious scholars. A series of extended deadlines by which to legislate a new enlistment law expired at the end of July. In turn, Gallant ordered the IDF in June to not draft ultra-Orthodox men until March 31, 2024. By then, the coalition expects that a bill exempting the ultra-Orthodox will have passed.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.