Ehud Barak
Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Photo by Olivier Fittousi
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Defense Minister Ehud Barak Monday threw his weight behind a proposal to pay soldiers doing their compulsory service minimum wage, saying this would be incorporated into a new law that would require every Israeli to do one year of either military or civilian national service.

Barak said his ministry is preparing the law, which would replace an existing law that exempts yeshiva students from service.

Until the new law is ready, however, the government plans to extend the existing law, known as the Tal Law. Consequently, the Knesset plenum will begin debating its extension Tuesday, though no vote will be held.

Essentially, Tuesday's debate is merely a legal formality. The Tal Law itself states that the Knesset must begin discussing whether to extend it at least six months before it is due to expire in August 2012, so discussion must begin no later than February 1 if the legislators want to preserve the option of extending it.

The plan whose adoption Barak announced Monday was originally proposed by MK Avishay Braverman (Labor ). Under Braverman's bill, soldiers would be paid the minimum wage starting in their second year of compulsory service.

However, 75 percent of that money would not be paid directly to the soldiers. It would go into a fund that they could later use to pay for university studies, professional training or yeshiva studies.

The idea is that at the end of the standard three years of service, soldiers would have enough money to fully fund a bachelor's degree. Those who serve longer would also have extra money to live on while in college.

The Defense Ministry said its bill would call for differential salaries, with combat soldiers getting the highest sum.

The ministry said its bill is based on shortening compulsory service, currently three years for men and two for women; ensuring that everyone has an equal obligation to serve; and structuring compensation to create a clear incentive for military rather than civilian service.

Meanwhile, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discussed the Tal Law Monday, and committee chairman MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ) told the meeting he plans to submit his own bill to replace the existing law.

All the speakers at the meeting agreed that the current system of draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students is unsustainable.

"Currently, one out of every four men and one out of every two women isn't drafted," said Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, head of the Israel Defense Forces' personnel directorate. "This data undermines the idea of the people's army."

MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ), who chairs a subcommittee that has been tracking implementation of the Tal Law, said new army programs aimed at recruiting the Haredim are praiseworthy, but insufficient.

While the army's goal is to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox soldiers from 1,200 to 2,400 by 2015, he said, the number of Haredim receiving draft deferrals will rise by more than 1,200 by then, meaning the total number of Haredim who receive draft exemptions will actually grow.