Israeli Cabinet Endorses New Army Draft Bill Expected to Be Political Football in Knesset

The bill has long been at the center of a dispute in the Israeli government, and even threatened to topple it ■ Knesset expected to pass it in first vote today

Ultra-Orthodox Israeli soldiers praying.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The cabinet on Sunday approved the version of the draft law published by the Defense Ministry last month. “I congratulate the members of the committee of the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry on their professional and businesslike work, which a short time ago received the confidence of the cabinet,” said Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. “This is the law of the defense establishment, for the sake of security and for the sake of the State of Israel.”

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The proposal is expected to pass its first vote Monday with a majority, although the Haredi parties announced that they would oppose it because Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid announced that his party would vote in favor of the law.

In response to Lapid’s announcement, the Zionist Union declared that they would turn the vote on the law into a vote of no-confidence in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The step is expected to embarrass Lapid and his party, because their support for the bill will provide the government with a safety net that would prevent its being disbanded due to Haredi opposition.

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“Yesh Atid and the Haredi parties will have to decide once and for all on Monday where they stand: for or against the government,” said Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson.

Lapid on Sunday issued a special announcement in which he tried to explain his decision to support the bill.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (right) and Interior Minister Arye Deri (left) at the Knesset in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

“This is actually a Yesh Atid bill. It’s no coincidence that the Haredim are opposed to it. Its basic principles are taken from the law we passed in the previous government. The chief of staff and the IDF are signatories, and it will lead to a situation in which more Haredim will be drafted and more Haredim will go out to work,” wrote Lapid.

Lapid rejected the criticism that the support of Yesh Atid will help Netanyahu’s coalition to survive in the coming months. “It’s definitely the job of the opposition to bring down the government. But the government won’t fall if the bill doesn’t pass. That’s just a statement someone made and that everyone is repeating. If the law doesn’t pass, the government will simply go to the High Court of Justice and request an extension.”

MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union) criticized the wording of the law approved in the cabinet. “This is a plan that’s entirely a disgrace and a writ of surrender that grants a green light to draft evasion and is liable to lead to the collapse of the model of a people’s army,” said Shmuli.

“Anyone who supports it in the Knesset is enabling the passage of this shady deal on the backs of the soldiers who serve, and we should be ashamed. There’s no connection between this plan and the proposal for equal sharing of the burden, and it’s no wonder that even the attorney general has reservations about many of its provisions. If others have decided to raise a white flag, we will wage the political and legal battle by ourselves.”

The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are gearing up for Monday’s initial Knesset vote. The Haredi factions are expected to put up a united front in opposing the bill, even though most of their representatives actually support it, viewing it as a reasonable approach under the current political circumstances.

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The decision to oppose the bill was taken at the direction of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael, the Hasidic faction of United Torah Judaism. The leadership of UTJ’s other wing, Degel Hatorah, and Shas did not believe that this was the proper approach, but the parties’ rabbis not to go head-to-head with the Hasidic faction and to put up a united front instead.

A source from Agudat Yisrael said after the initial vote, efforts will be made to change a provision in the bill that imposes sanctions against ultra-Orthodox yeshivas if the actual numbers of those Haredi men enlisting fall below 85 percent of the targets called for in the law for three years in a row.

The current controversy has its origins in a 2012 ruling by the High Court of Justice that found the so-called Tal Law, which gave draft deferments to full-time ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, was unconstitutional. It has since been amended but has come in for continued criticism from the court, which has given the government until September to come up with an acceptable arrangement.

“It’s clear to everyone,” said the Agudat Yisrael source, that the new bill will probably not pass muster with the High Court, and that the only resolution of the matter would be the passage of a basic law, a law with constitutional status, providing a draft exemption for Torah study. “That’s the only thing that can stop the intervention of the High Court of Justice, but it probably won’t happen soon,” the source said.