Israel Begins Thrashing Out Details of ultra-Orthodox Draft, but an Uphill Battle Remains

Main dispute over enforcement, with Yesh Atid pressing for criminal penalties as early as 2017.

The Knesset took a first step toward instituting a more equitable model of army service on Monday, as a special committee headed by MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) began voting on sections of the relevant legislation.

The section brought to a vote dealt with the mechanism for alternative civilian service for people who don’t serve in the Israel Defense Forces. But the voting is proceeding very slowly: At the end of a stormy debate that lasted three hours, the committee managed to approve exactly one article in the bill – the one defining the terms used in its operative sections. The remaining articles will be discussed only next week.

Porush’s mischievous proposal

And this section of the bill is the easy part: Despite a mischievous proposal by MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) to allow civilian national service in the prime minister’s residences in Jerusalem and Caesarea, it enjoys relatively broad support in the committee. Voting on the bill’s more hotly contested sections, which deal with drafting Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students into the army, will apparently begin only in mid-January.

The principal dispute between the two coalition parties most interested in the bill, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, centers on one key issue: how the law will be enforced. Shaked’s position is that if the Haredim and the army fail to meet the targets set in the bill for how many Haredim should be drafted each year, then starting in 2017 economic sanctions should be imposed on Haredim who neither enlist nor receive one of the exemptions that will be granted to 1,800 outstanding Torah scholars every year. If the economic sanctions fail to produce results, then based on a media interview Shaked gave a few weeks ago, her party would apparently agree to imposing criminal sanctions on Haredi draft-dodgers starting in 2020.

But MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), who is his party’s point man on the committee, doesn’t believe that economic sanctions will succeed in spurring Haredim to enlist. Shelah also fears that such sanctions would be overturned by the High Court of Justice as constituting unfair punishment. Therefore, he advocates imposing criminal sanctions on Haredi draft-dodgers starting in 2017.

Further battles over this issue are expected in the coming weeks, especially since the coalition’s largest faction – the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - has yet to determine its position on the matter. Surprisingly, given that this is one of the current Knesset’s premier legislative initiatives, the prime minister’s party has been relatively uninvolved in efforts to shape the bill.

The Haredi parties are expected to oppose either option, and are thus unlikely to play a major role in deciding the issue.

Other issues also remain to be decided. For instance, MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah) will continue his battle to extend the amount of time hesder yeshiva students spend in the army. Hesder is a five-year program that combines Torah study with army service. But students spend only 16 months of that time in the army, with the rest being spent in yeshiva.

Since most hesder students are religious Zionists, preserving this benefit is important to Habayit Hayehudi’s voters. But once the new enlistment bill is passed, thereby ending the sweeping exemption from army service that Haredi yeshiva students have hitherto enjoyed, the inequality inherent in the hesder arrangement is liable to be perceived as much more extreme.

Another debate, which is less politicized, is over the age at which Haredim who aren’t drafted should be granted full exemptions from army service. The Haredi parties want this age to be set at 26. That would essentially force Haredim who aren’t drafted to stay in yeshiva until then, since in order to work legally, a person must have either done army service or been exempted. The IDF, in contrast, informed the committee that it has no need of recruits over age 24, because at that point, the cost of their service is higher than its value to the army.

The issue at the heart of the new law – which has been termed, with some exaggeration, that of “equality in bearing the burden” of service – played a substantial role in the Knesset election campaign a year ago. Now, one day before the end of 2013, the bill has finally reached the early stages of the legislative approval process. But the discussions taking place over it are happening largely under the radar of the public and the media. The compromises and understandings are being reached between the warring coalition factions, with the Haredi MKs protesting in the background.

Mass protests to come

In principle, the Haredi MKs can’t lend their hand to any bill to forcibly draft yeshiva students, and certainly not to one that, at some point down the line, would enable yeshiva students to be thrown in jail for the crime of preferring Torah study to army service. After the legislative process has been completed - which is supposed to happen in the next few weeks - mass protests by the Haredi community are expected to resume. But the intensity of opposition on the part of both the Haredi public and their rabbis will be influenced by the final wording of the bill.

Everyone concerned understands that the real test of the law will arrive only in 2017, when the number of Haredim doing military or civilian national service will be compared with the targets to be set over the coming month.

Between now and then, anything can happen. Perhaps the Haredi parties will have returned to the coalition by then. And who knows whether the MKs now clashing over every comma in the law will still be politically relevant enough to affect what actually happens in 2017?

Ceremony marking the end of basic training of a Nahal Haredi battalion.
Alex Levac