Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded on Wednesday that Shas ministers soften their positions regarding legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox men into military or civilian service, or that they suggest alternatives to the proposals being formulated by a government panel.

Netanyahu met with the Haredi legislators on Wednesday, to discuss the issue being addressed by he Plesner Committee for Promoting Service and Equalizing the Burden. The committee must present its recommendations by early next week, to give the Knesset time to debate and pass a new law governing the exemptions and service requirements of Haredi men. The Tal Law, the previous legislation on this issue, was struck down in February by the High Court of Justice and is due to expire on August 1.

The Haredi parties have boycotted the hearings of the Plesner Committee. But Shas Ministers Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias promised the prime minister they would address those issues in dispute as soon as possible. Haredi observers said this is an indication that Haredim are starting to sober up and take the threat being posed by the Plesner panel seriously.

Haredi activists have held marathon telephone calls and meetings with Netanyahu over the past two days in an effort to reduce the damage to the yeshiva world that would be caused by its students being sent to serve their country, but these encounters have apparently not brought results.

The plan being formulated includes both incentives for Haredi men to serve when they reach age 18, as well as serious personal punishments if they do not begin some form of service by age 23. These include financial penalties and denial of government benefits.

The plan also imposes sanctions, including budget cuts, on yeshivas whose students refuse to do service. And it makes anyone who is registered in a yeshiva, but not learning there, subject to criminal penalties.

Both Shas and the United Torah Judaism MKs have told Netanyahu that they will not accept any sanctions, personal or institutional, or any ceilings limiting the number of yeshiva students who will be permanently exempt from service.

Both of these are key components of the Plesner outline and have the support of a majority on the committee. Under the plan, 1,500 Haredim who are deemed "Torah geniuses" will be granted a permanent exemption each year.

The only area in which there seemed to be some Haredi flexibility was on the issue of linking the general budget for yeshivas to the number of students who leave to pursue military or civilian service.

Yishai and Atias said they'd want the new law to be based on "draft targets," which would obligate the Israel Defense Forces and the Civilian Service Administration, rather than the Haredim. Under this proposal there would be a firm schedule for drafting a steady number of yeshiva students, who until they are actually drafted would enjoy a deferment under the "Torah as their livelihood" clause. Yishai and Atias said that under those circumstances, they would agree for the overall yeshiva budget to be reduced if these draft targets are not met.

O Wednesday, Plesner was bombarded with complaints from draft reform activists and others about the readiness to defer the draft of Haredim until age 23, when they were far less likely to do combat duty.

Plesner understood the concern, saying at a Kadima party meeting on Wednesday, "There is no legitimacy to any solution if there are no combat soldiers. That's the essence of 'equal burden.' But anyone who thinks they can bring about deep social change by drafting at 18 an entire population that until now has had no connection to service frameworks, that's populism."

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