Army Haredim - Matti Stein - Sept. 17, 2010
Soldiers at an IDF induction center being drafted into the army in 2000. Photo by Matti Stein
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The IDF and the National Economic Council have reached agreement on the future conscription of the ultra-Orthodox into the army.

The plan likely to be brought before the Supreme Court will set a goal of conscripting 30 percent of ultra-Orthodox men in 2015, and 30 percent more will be assigned to alternative, civilian service, which combines work and national service. The court plans on commencing deliberations the validity of the Tal Law, which regulates Haredi conscription, in January.

Currently fewer than 10 percent of eligible Haredi men are conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces annually and the number of those doing national service remains tiny.

The main stumbling block in implementing the plan is budgetary. The Finance Ministry has expressed doubts that it can be carried out and that it will be possible to conscript thousands of Haredim into the army.

The treasury would prefer to see the age of exemption for Haredim lowered and allow them to do civilian service at an earlier stage - at 22 - while stripping the army of the power to select who will be conscripted.

For this reason the representatives of the Finance Ministry have been opposed to the budgeting of funds that would be used in the ambitious program advocated by the IDF, which the army calculates would require an annual allotment of NIS 150 million starting in 2015.

The understandings reached between the IDF and the National Economic Council, which operates within the Prime Minister's Office, were presented during a series of discussions. The talks were organized by the team supervising the implementation of the Tal Law on behalf of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, headed by MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ).

In September 2009, the Supreme Court ordered the state to present its new policy on the Tal Law by year's end, and gave the state 15 months for its implementation. During deliberations, the justices were sharply critical of the failure of the state to implement the law and for not utilizing the national service alternative included in the legislation.

As reported in Haaretz, in May the IDF presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a proposal that would see several thousand Haredim conscripted annually, instead of the fewer than 700 currently brought into the army every year.

In discussions headed by the Plesner group, the IDF and the Economic Council presented detailed data, which was quite similar to that presented to Netanyahu. The IDF is now proposing the conscription of about 2,500 Haredim each year, a number which will increase slightly by 2015 in order to meet the 30 percent goal, in part because of the rapid and substantial increase in the size of the ultra-Orthodox population.

Currently Haredim serve in a variety of forms in the IDF, mostly in units encompassing only ultra-Orthodox men. Some are combat units, but a new option includes the assignment of Haredi men aged 22-24 to technology based roles, mostly in the air force and in military intelligence. There is also a program for conscripting several hundred Haredim each year for several months training in roles involving the Home Front Command, which sees them later serving as reservists in rear command functions.

During discussions, the head of IDF manpower, Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir offered details of the program for the first time. Estimating an annual cost of NIS 150 million, starting in 2015, Zamir says that the money will be needed to pay for special stipends for soldiers' families, for training, adjusting the bases for the special religious needs of Haredim and creating permanent base accommodations for longer term stays by ultra-Orthodox soldiers.

Some of the money will be used for a program already underway by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and IDF, which places former yeshiva students aged 16-18 in boarding schools where they will receive professional training.

The aim is for these teenagers to later serve a full term in the army, some in the professions they will be trained in prior to conscription.

The Education Ministry has recently also joined this effort, which this year includes several dozen teenagers and has plans to expand to several hundred strong by next year.

Plesner told Haaretz that "for the first time there is a formula being prepared that will allow bringing the Haredim into the IDF. To date the military was not really ready to absorb them, for budgetary and other reasons. This is a step that needs to take place jointly because forcing it will not work. The IDF is moving from a series of pilot programs to an orderly approach. But in the end the decision will be for the government to make: A decision in principle is needed that will allow the conscription of a third of the ultra-Orthodox up to the age of 26. This is the goal that the government must recognize and must fund."