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Shinui slammed a government decision Sunday that approved a program of voluntary civilian national service for Israelis who are not drafted to the Israel Defense Forces, saying the decision reflected increased inequality and obsequiousness in the face of the ultra-Orthodox community ahead of elections.

In February 2005, a special panel filed a proposal with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz calling for a program to go into effect at the end of this year, with an initial complement of hundreds of volunteers - Jews and Arabs, men and women, religious and secular, including ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who have received draft deferrals. The program, according to the committee's recommendations, will open "to all Israeli citizens and residents who are not called to do security [i.e. IDF] service, are exempt from security service or have been rejected for security service."

According to the Sunday decision, some 200 ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students will be drafted into a civilian national service program in 2005. The implementation of the decision is dependent upon Knesset approval.

Mofaz said the government's decision was an "additional meaningful step toward a revolution in the conception of service in Israel that we in the defense establishment have been striving for a long time."

Meretz officials welcomed the decision and noted that it was a step in the right direction.

The decision "will create a situation in which every Israeli citizen is able to perform the type of service that suits him or her - while respecting his principles. This service can be within a national civilian framework in which every citizen may choose how he is able to contribute to the security or social needs of the state."

Most program participants will be volunteers, with two exceptions: The committee recommends making civilian national service mandatory for people who would normally be drafted, but have been exempted due to health problems, conscientious objection or any other reason that would not preclude civilian service. It also recommends mandatory service for soldiers who are released as unfit for military service during their first year, but would be fit for civilian service.

Since the leaderships of both the Arab and the ultra-Orthodox publics vehemently oppose national service, the committee, headed by Major General (res.) David Ivri, proposed appealing directly to these communities' young members via advertisements. To encourage them to volunteer, the committee proposes a significant incentive: Every graduate of the civilian national service program will receive the same financial benefits granted to IDF veterans, adjusted for their length of service.

The committee's tentative proposal is that the volunteers serve only one year, with the option of staying on for a second 12-month period. IDF service, in contrast, is usually three years for men and two for women. However, the committee is still considering the idea of making civilian service the same length as IDF service.

To oversee the program, the committee proposed establishing both a public council and a government agency, with the latter to be subordinate to the Prime Minister's Office. The agency would sign agreements with the health, education and welfare institutions where the volunteers would serve, encourage young people to volunteer, place them and give them professional training where necessary.

The agency would have two divisions: "national service" and "civilian service." The former would deal with people doing mandatory service, as well as those religious women who do national service in lieu of army service today. The latter would be aimed mainly at Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox - two populations that might be put off by the Zionist implications of "national service."

The committee believes that some 9,000 ultra-Orthodox a year might ultimately volunteer for such service, but offers no numerical predictions about Arab volunteers.

Arab and ultra-Orthodox volunteers would be offered positions within their own communities - for instance, in Arab or ultra-Orthodox schools or community health centers - or in programs that already have a significant number of volunteers from these communities. Ultra-Orthodox volunteers, for instance, might work for ZAKA, an organization founded by the ultra-Orthodox that helps to identify victims after terror attacks or other disasters.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has frequently signaled his desire to expand civilian service, particularly to the Arab population, as he believes such service would promote the integration of the Arab public. The committee's report includes a similar assessment.

"This process would have positive social ramifications for the status of Israel's Arabs and relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel," it said. "In this way, the committee hopes to pave the way for this sector to integrate better into the Israeli sociopolitical fabric."

The one possible snag to the government's adoption of the program is its cost, estimated at tens of millions of shekels in the short term alone. This may lead the Finance Ministry to oppose it.

The committee has been working on its proposal for the past 18 months. In addition to Ivri, its members include former Supreme Court justice Itzhak Englard, attorney Yaakov Weinroth, Dr. Gila Menachem and Major General (res.) Gideon Sheffer, a former head of the IDF's manpower division.