Cabinet Okays Limit to Funding of Yeshiva Students

Vote on military exemptions postponed, but chief of staff says he's opposed.

The cabinet decided on Sunday to limit payments of stipends to married yeshiva students to five years. The decision will only be fully implemented, however, in another five years.

Fourteen ministers, including the ministers from Yisrael Beiteinu, voted in favor, while five ministers from the Labor Party and three from Likud - Gideon Sa'ar, Gilad Erdan and Limor Livnat - voted against the proposal.The Shas ministers, as well as Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom of Likud, abstained.

Another controversial proposal, which would have exempted most ultra-Orthodox men from military service in return for civilian service, did not come up for discussion yesterday, as had been planned, for lack of time.

Meanwhile, though, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said on Sunday that he opposed the exemption, which would apply to married yeshiva students up to age 22, if they have no children, and unmarried students up to age 24.

"As a rule, we are in favor of integrating Haredim into the army," Ashkenazi said, during a speech delivered at the ultra-Orthodox campus of the Ono Academic College, "and if we are allowed to, into the labor force as well." The issue, he said, was the exemption from the draft. The age for exemption, he said, should be 24 to 25, unless candidates had children.

Ashkenazi stressed the principle of equality noting that university graduates begin serving in the army in practice at the age 22 or 23 and they do not receive an exemption. He said the IDF had made its position on the exemption known to the cabinet and planned to reiterate it.

Meanwhile, Ashkenazi's ultra-Orthodox audience gave the chief of staff a generally warm reception, although the audience was not representative of the most conservative segments of the Haredi community. Ashkenazi called himself a religious believer and said his maternal grandfather was a rabbi.

He said he was in favor of national service for all and that the military should be given priority when it came to enlisting new recruits.

Shas abstains

The cabinet debated the five-year stipend limitation for more than three hours on Sunday, as tempers flared. At one point, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended the meeting and left the room to try to convince Shas ministers to abstain or absent themselves. The discussion resumed only after Netanyahu secured a commitment from Shas ministers Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias that they would abstain.

Before the cabinet convened, the Likud ministers met separately, with several urging the prime minister to reconsider the proposal, which they argued would cause the party damage. Among them was Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who also expressed concern that the move could be challenged in court. The prime minister replied that the measure was not perfect but asserted that it was the maximum that could be achieved.

Netanyahu said Kadima had not addressed the issue when it controlled the government and had even allocated more funding to the Haredim more than the current government had.

The proposal to cut stipends to yeshiva students follows a ruling by the High Court of Justice that the practice violates the principle of equality, since it does not apply to university students. The prime minister's aides noted at yesterday's meeting that the government is not only addressing the issue of yeshiva student stipends but is also doubling the funding made available to needy university students from NIS 50 million to NIS 100 million a year.

Under the proposal approved on Sunday, the government will provide a total of NIS 127 million a year in stipends to married yeshiva students, amounting to NIS 1,040 a month per student for four years. In the fifth year, the amount will be reduced to prepare the student for entry into the labor market.

Shas representatives said that among the reasons they had abstained in the vote was that the plan does not address the high court's concerns. They also said that employers need to be encouraged to hire yeshiva students and that yeshiva students need to receive help to make them more attractive job candidates.

Shalom, who opposed the measure, said the political controversy was being fed by a sense that elections are in the offing and that this was radicalizing all of the parties' positions on religion and state, as well as on diplomatic issues.

Netanyahu responded that he did not think Shas or Yisrael Beiteinu intended to leave the governing coalition and break up the government, telling Shalom that if the government were to be broken up "we" will do it, implying that it would be carried out by the Likud.