Tens of Thousands March in Tel Aviv Demanding Equality in National Service

Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, Kadima head Shaul Mofaz and head of National Student Union Itzik Shmuli attend mass rally in Tel Aviv Museum plaza.

Thousands of protesters marched in central Tel Aviv on Saturday to demand ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors share the burden of military and civilian service.

Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz and his predecessor Tzipi Livni also attended the rally, as did "Yesh Atid" chairman Yair Lapid.

According to Police estimates 20,000 persons arrived at the Museum Plaza.

According to Mofaz "A concerted effort was made to pass the bill into law. The findings of the Plesner Committee must be implemented. Towards Wednesday, we will have a bill ready to be voted into law. We must not allow this subject to fall out of public discourse. I came here to identify with all Israelis that serve and carry the burden."

Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin commented on Mofaz coming to the protest saying "It is shameful. It is like a tycoon coming to Dafni Leef's [social] protests."

Diskin said in the rally that "unfortunately, there are still people who think they should not bear the burden. We serve the state because it's the land of our fathers, where our parents and we fought so our children can live here."

Earlier on Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would debate the recommendations of the Plesner Committee, tasked with replacing the law governing Haredi enlistment, with his Likud faction on Sunday - after he disbanded the committee earlier this week.

The Prime Minister's Office also announced that Netanyahu would meet with Mofaz after the Likud debate, in signs that the coalition was headed for compromise over the national service issue. Last week, Mofaz threatened to leave the governing coalition over the national service law after Netanyahu disbanded the Plesner Committee.

But Netanyahu, who has cautiously supported the reform, is also under attack from other coalition partners, ultra-Orthodox parties who have threatened to walk out if their followers are to be forced into military service. 

Under pressure from religious leaders, Netanyahu on Monday disbanded a panel that drew up reform proposals. The committee was headed by Kadima lawmaker Yochanan Plessner, who released his report despite Netanyahu's move against the panel. 

Plessner's report seeks to slash exemptions for religious seminary students from a present 50,000 to 1,500 by 2016. It recommends stiff financial penalties for draft evaders. 

It also seeks to triple the number of Arab citizens of Israel doing national or military service, from the current 2,400, within five years. Israeli Arabs, who make up about a fifth of Israel's 7.8 million population, are fiercely opposed to the proposal. 

Most commentators in Israel did not see Netanyahu's government under any immediate threat of dissolution and hours before the Tel Aviv protest the prime minister appeared to backtrack on the Plessner report. 

A spokesman for Netanyahu's Likud party said in a statement that the leader would convene his faction on Sunday to discuss the report, and if Likud lawmakers approve it, Netanyahu and Mofaz would start drafting up a new bill in the coming week.

Boaz Nol, one of the protest organisers, voiced little confidence in Netanyahu's latest move. "It is a once-in-a-decades opportunity and the prime minister is wasting it away."