Analysis |

Breakthrough on Haredi Draft Possible in New Israeli Government Plan

For the first time, a comprehensive agreement on integrating Israel's ultra-Orthodox into the IDF and the workplace is within reach. But there are still many obstacles to overcome.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The final version of the plan to draft Haredim into the Israel Defense Forces, completed two days ago by members of the new coalition, has the potential to be a historic breakthrough. For the first time, an ambitious attempt has been made not only to find an alternative to the Tal Law, which exempted the ultra-Orthodox from military service, but also to reach a comprehensive agreement to help the Haredim integrate into the job market. Additional considerations in the plan address shorter terms of compulsory service and a re-examination of reserve duty.

Previous plans discussed last year, such as the ones drawn up by Yohanan Plesner and Moshe Ya’alon, received mostly lip service from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and nothing much was done to move them forward. This time, the members of the new government are committed to making change and Netanyahu has even signed a binding agreement to that effect.

Still, there are many obstacles, not just opposition to the plan by yeshiva heads and students, but also the fact that nobody, save Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, has any real investment in its success. Netanyahu and his third senior partner in the coalition, Naftali Bennett, were dragged into the new agreement against their will. It seems that as far as they are concerned, it wouldn't be such a disaster if the effort dwindled and died on its own over the (very generous) four years allocated for its implementation.

The key question, therefore, is whether Lapid and his people have the political staying power to ensure these ambitious ideas become reality and aren’t scuttled over in the next few years.

The main stumbling block is Yesh Atid's lack of parliamentary experience. The plan’s fate will be decided in the Knesset corridors, in committee maneuvering, in tiny, hidden clauses and indirect allocations – all areas in which ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni is far more skilled than Yair Lapid.

The guy behind the enlistment plan is MK Ofer Shelah, a close friend of Lapid. Shelah wrote the first draft of the plan during the election campaign. About a week ago, when a breakthrough was achieved in coalition negotiations and Lapid gave up the foreign affairs portfolio, Shelah wrote a new version of the plan. As he told Haaretz yesterday, the basic idea was to come up with a comprehensive plan to deal with the issue.

“Any attempt to enlist the Haredim without bringing them into the work force will be meaningless,” Shelah said. “The wise thing to do would be to put the whole puzzle together. If things continue as they are now, within a fairly short time about half the men of enlistment age in a given year will not be drafted.
"Also, economically speaking, the country can no longer bear the price of Haredi non-participation in the job market,” he said.

As a journalist, Shelah covered the military's struggle to carry out structural and conceptual changes. Dealing with the Haredim issue provides an opportunity for the IDF to deal with its structure as well. That's why his plan includes a gradual shortening of compulsory service for some soldiers to a two-year minimum.

Shelah's model calls for differential service, which defense officials have supported in the past but avoided implementing after the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The model would divide enlisted men into three sub-groups: one to perform basic service for two years, the second to fulfill more important roles over two and a half years and receive remuneration (a salary of NIS 3,000 per month for the last six months), and the third to serve vital positions from combat to intelligence. In the last case, compulsory service would last three years, and salary would increase to minimum wage for the last six months.

For the first time, the army would have to carefully consider the benefit of keeping on enlisted soldiers for extended periods since doing so would have significant financial repercussions.

Meeting recruitment goals

In Shelah's plan, the state would focus on increasing the number of Haredi men in the IDF, particularly in combat roles, starting at as young an age as possible. It also gives the IDF first right of refusal of a potential inductee. The army, not the yeshiva student, would decide whether he goes to the military or to the civilian national service.

These stipulations match public statements made by the two most recent chiefs of staff, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as information that high-ranking officials of the army’s Human Resources Directorate provided to the Plesner Committee last year. During those discussions, army officials stated that the IDF needed more Haredi draftees and that it intended to establish two or three more combat battalions similar to the Nahal Haredi unit.

The troops in the new battalions would operate the aerial defense units (such as Iron Dome) and provide ongoing security on the Egyptian and Jordanian borders. The plan calls to establish a basic-training camp for Haredim at the installations built in the south to imprison infiltrators from Africa, which are currently not in use. However, the army opposes establishing a separate Haredi brigade for fear of setting a precedent.

In terms of civilian service, Shelah's plan emphasizes positions in security and rescue services such as the police, fire departments and the ZAKA disaster victim identification unit. It does not focus on community service, which Shelah sees as having little benefit. At the final stage of military service, focus would shift to preparing the young Haredi men for the job market.

Originally, Yesh Atid’s plan included a quota of only 400 yeshiva students (known as iluim, or “prodigies”) who would be exempt from service while the rest of the Haredi men would be drafted as early as age 18. In practice, party officials knew these demands were unrealistic. The number of students exempt (known now as matmidim, or “diligent students”), would increase to 1,800 and the draft age would be 21.

Gradually, recruitment goals for the IDF and national service would increase from the current rate of 1,200 each year for both the IDF and national service. In 2015, this number would increase to 3,000 draftees to the IDF and 1,500 for national service. By 2017, when the transition is complete and the law is in full effect, recruitment goals would be about 4,500 Haredi men per year, slightly more than half of the Haredim of draft age, and another 2,500 in national service.

During the transition period, the state would exempt Haredi men age 22 and older from service, roughly 35,000 people.

Yesh Atid officials insisted on two demands for their plan: that one of its MKs would chair the committee overseeing the law, and that the law would be submitted to the Knesset within 45 days for approval. In negotiations, Yesh Atid had to give up leadership of the committee, which was subsequently given to Habayit Hayehudi.

What's missing in the plan’s final version? The sanctions for violating it are fairly weak. A clause requiring a kind of collective punishment in the form of budget cuts for yeshivas that failed to meet recruitment goals was removed at the last moment. The plan contains no criminal penalties either; the only remaining sanctions are personal financial ones that would be imposed on individual evaders. It remains to be seen whether even these will be enforced.

As far as Yesh Atid is concerned, reforming the draft is as important a test as Lapid’s performance in the Finance Ministry. If the new model is adopted – which is not at all guaranteed at this point – Lapid will have gained a significant political victory. More importantly, even though the plan is far from perfect, it would still be a significant improvement of the military and economic inequality in Israel.

An Orthodox soldier praying at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's grave on Mount Meron.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

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