Livni to Join Netanyahu Coalition, but Divide Remains Deep on Haredi Draft

Hatnuah MK Elazar Stern outlines the party's policy on IDF conscription for ultra-Orthodox Israelis; policy contradicts that of Likud on various fronts, including call for drastic cuts to yeshiva funding even if conscription targets are met.

Although Tzipi Livni announced Tuesday that her party, Hatnuah, would join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's next government, they appear to be far from agreeing on a plan to draft the ultra-Orthodox.

Hatnuah MK Elazar Stern, Livni's point person for negotiating the issue with Likud, Netanyahu's party, told Haaretz Wednesday that his party cannot accept significant portions of the plan as developed by Eugene Kandel, head of the prime minister's National Economic Council.

The measure, which has Netanyahu's support, would replace the Tal Law, which allowed ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to defer military service. The law expired in August after it was found unconstitutional in court. Kandel's proposal would bring sanctions against yeshivas that fail to meet conscription targets. But in negotiations with Likud, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is attempting to neutralize those sanctions while Hatnuah wants to stiffen them and include provisions not currently in the plan.

Stern, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces' personnel division, has been involved in the issue of conscription of ultra-Orthodox recruits for years. A plan he developed on the issue formed the basis of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party's position on the matter.

"In our coalition agreement, there is a clause that requires our consent on the plan for the ultra-Orthodox draft," Stern said.  "Now we need to enter negotiations and see what can be achieved."

Stern expects to meet with Kandel on the issue on Thursday.

Like Kandel, Stern is in favor of setting IDF enlistment targets rather than pushing for quotas on the number of draft-age ultra-Orthodox men entitled to exemption. Still, the differences between the two men are substantial.

Kandel's plan calls for economic sanctions against yeshivas that fail to meet the targets, meaning their state funding would be cut based on the extent to which they fail to meet conscription guidelines. Stern, however, is calling for drastic cuts to yeshiva funding even if targets are fully met. To encourage yeshiva students to enter the workforce, he has called for the reduction of state support, currently a billion shekels a year, by 25 percent each year until it is a quarter of its current level.

"What's important at the moment is reducing the budget for the yeshivas," Stern said. "I say it should be 25 percent of what it is now, but that number isn't sacred. What's important is encouraging entry into the workforce and taking the money [previously budgeted for yeshivas] and giving it to the soldiers."

When it comes to the draft of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, Stern is also opposed to Kandel's proposal that it be imposed at age 23 rather than 18, which is when the general population is drafted. By age 23, Stern argues, many Haredim would likely have children and would therefore be paid higher army salaries, adding thousands of shekels a month in family support payments. He says they should be drafted at age 20 instead.

Stern further believes that the army should not establish special units for Haredi soldiers, like Shahar, an existing technology unit for Haredi recruits, but should encourage them to join combat units.

Another essential component of Stern's plan, which is also part of Yesh Atid's, is establishing a 5-year interim period during which Haredi recruits would receive a full draft deferment in an effort to get them to leave yeshivas and enter the workforce.

"We need to give the Haredim wide avenues to enter the labor market," Stern said, even if it comes at the expense of sharing the burden of military service.

"Inequality isn't just talking about leeches [off government funds] but about inequality in economics," he said. "I actually connect the two, but I'm not going to hammer home a slogan of sharing of the burden because sharing the burden happens in military cemeteries, not by inventing positions in the army," he said sarcastically.

"What equality is there between someone who comes in at 8 A.M. and goes home at 5 P.M. compared to someone who leaves home on Sunday and comes back two weeks later?" he asked, comparing the types of special positions likely set aside for Haredim with the combat positions of much of the male Israeli population. He also pointed out that combat soldiers are usually responsible for reserve duty later.

"I don't favor creating special positions for the Haredim but rather bringing in as many of them as needed and getting as many as possible into the labor market."

Stern's deep reservations run in complete opposition to the concerns of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, which said on Tuesday that they would join the coalition if some of the sanctions in Kandel's plan were eliminated.  

In response to Shas' intention to remove sanctions, Stern said his party will have to approve them or will counter the efforts.

"It will have to be done with our consent," Stern told Haaretz. "Likud cannot surprise us and decide anything that directly or by implication contradicts our plan."

Ouria Tadmor