Draft Reform / One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The holes in the plan will allow a significant proportion of ultra-Orthodox men to continue to avoid more than cursory service to the state.

Sunday's cabinet resolution corrects some of the more egregious lapses in the draft reform, deliberation of which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had put on hold for three weeks as a result of the criticism it had drawn. The changes to the recommendations of the interministerial committee headed by Prime Minister's Office Director General Eyal Gabai followed the suggestions of outgoing Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Nonetheless, there is still a big gap between the enthusiastic rhetoric of the ministers yesterday and the situation on the ground. The holes in the plan will allow a significant proportion of ultra-Orthodox men to continue to avoid more than cursory service to the state, whether in the army or in the emergency and rescue services.

The changes, which reduce somewhat the number of Haredi men who can avoid military service altogether (by raising the maximum recruitment age for married men without children ), was preceded by a meeting between Ashkenazi and Netanyahu last Wednesday. The former succeeded in getting NIS 130 million to fund the absorption of Haredim into the IDF.

Haredi students - Eyal Warshavsky
Eyal Warshavsky

Ashkenazi gave his blessing to the revised program, while sources in the IDF said it was a change for the better and that one could not too much change at one time.

But there is a significant difference between the version approved by the cabinet yesterday and Ashkenazi's original position. He viewed national service, whether military or civilian, as a universal duty. Furthermore, he wanted the IDF to have first pick of Haredi candidates, before they were diverted to civilian service.

In practice, the program approved by the cabinet will permit thousands of Haredi men to easily skip IDF service. In essence, the state is making an enticing offer to the ultra-Orthodox: Do one year of civilian national service and gain total exemption from the military - including an exemption from all reserve duty, unlike the vast majority of non-Haredi citizens your age.

Other holes in the system: The program automatically exempts 12,000 yeshiva students from any type of national service, because the age limit was lowered. There is also the possibility of enlisting in a second draft, with a shorter basic-training period that is followed by more limited reserve duty. Moreover, there is no clear rule for distinguishing between service in the emergency forces and national service performed by Haredim within their communities, the supervision of which is generally lax.

The bottom line: Some progress has been made, at least in comparison to the cabinet's original proposal. Netanyahu was in a rush to push through the cabinet's proposal because the state must respond to the High Court of Justice on January 30 with regard to the pending petition over the implementation of the Tal Law on drafting Haredim.

The matter is far from over. A parliamentary committee headed by MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ), which deliberated the same issue, will present completely different recommendations, and the High Court will probably offer its own recommendations.