Funding Cuts for Haredi Draft-dodgers Finally Puts an End to Knesset Foot-dragging

High Court's decision questions the defense minister’s authority to continue issuing draft deferrals for yeshiva students.

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The High Court of Justice issued a public warning to the Knesset on Tuesday over its lengthy delay in enacting new legislation on drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

Despite the outcry by the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, the interim injunction the court issued won’t have major financial implications. At a rough estimate, it will freeze some 10 million shekels a year ($2.8 million) in yeshiva funding. The heart of the matter lies elsewhere: The court, in somewhat roundabout legal language, demanded that the Knesset finish the legislation, questioned the defense minister’s authority to continue issuing draft deferrals for yeshiva students, and even took a practical step by freezing funding for students whose draft has been deferred.

Though it hasn’t issued a final ruling on any of the four petitions relating to the Haredi draft that it is currently hearing, by issuing the injunction, the court has effectively put an end to the ongoing political foot-dragging over finishing the new law.

The previous law governing draft deferrals for yeshiva students, the so-called Tal Law, expired in August 2012. Since then, Haredim have technically been subject to the draft. But for the past 18 months the government has repeatedly deferred drafting them, while asking the court to be patient for just a little longer.

The Perry Committee, established by the government to propose new legislation, submitted its recommendations last summer and a parliamentary committee headed by MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) was supposed to finish preparing the actual bill by the start of the Knesset’s winter session in October. Until now, however, most coalition parties have acted as if failing to pass the law were a problem only for Yesh Atid, which made drafting the Haredim a key campaign issue.

Only recently has the Shaked Committee finally neared the end of its work. The committee is supposed to start voting on the bill next Monday, and it should reach the Knesset plenum in the second week of March. To some extent, Tuesday’s injunction helps Yesh Atid, whose representative on the committee, MK Ofer Shelah, has been warning his colleagues for months that time is running out.

March is also when the last call-up of the 2013-14 draft year will take place. By order of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Haredim weren’t drafted in either August or November (unless they volunteered). But if they aren’t drafted in March, either, that means another entire year of Haredim won’t be drafted − even though no legislation authorizing this exists and the High Court has cast doubt on Ya’alon’s authority to defer their service.

In other words, if Haredim aren’t drafted despite the old law’s expiration and the absence of a new one, the inequality between Haredi men and their non-Haredi counterparts will be visible in full measure. And then how long will it be before the first secular draftee puts the legality of this situation to the test by petitioning the High Court to ask why the defense minister only exempts Haredim from service, while other 18-year-olds are drafted? To prevent such a scenario, new legislation is needed.

On this issue, judging by their responses on Tuesday, Yesh Atid and the ruling Likud party are in agreement. A senior defense source said “The defense establishment is disgusted that the law has been delayed. The problem isn’t us. The defense minister thinks drafting Haredim into the Israel Defense Forces is meaningful and important, and it’s necessary to get started.”

But in the same breath, the official charged that “various parties are making political capital of this issue.” In other words, the battle among the coalition parties hasn’t yet ended. But on Tuesday, the High Court at least set a deadline for its conclusion.

Ultra-Orthodox soldiers. The Knesset will have to decide on their compulsory induction into the IDF. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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