Proposed Amendment Would Defer Israeli Military Service, Sanctions for ultra-Orthodox

Faction chairman MK Ofer Shelah said that if the amendment passes, the government 'would no longer have the moral authority to draft people into the people's army and send them to defend the homeland.'

Olivier Fitoussi

The Defense Ministry published the text of a proposed amendment on Friday that would extend draft deferrals for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students for another three years and also postpone implementation of criminal sanctions for those who dodge the draft thereafter.

Under a law passed by the previous government, the draft deferrals currently granted to all Haredi yeshiva students would have ended on June 30, 2017. After that, the cabinet would set annual quotas for how many ultra-Orthodox must enlist in either military or civilian national service. If these quotas were met, deferrals for all other ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students would remain in effect until 2020. If not, then the sweeping deferrals would remain in force for students up to age 21, but all students over that age would have to do either military or civilian service, other than 1,800 exceptional students who would be granted permanent exemptions.

The law also stated that once yeshiva students became liable for the draft — whether in 2020 or, if the quotas weren’t met, earlier than that — those who refused to serve would be subject to criminal sanctions, just as other draft-dodgers are.

Under the proposed amendment, which was mandated by the current government’s coalition agreements, the sweeping exemptions will remain in force until June 30, 2020. After that will come three years of voluntary quotas, as in the existing law, but with one difference: If the quotas aren’t met, all yeshiva students over the age of 21 won’t be liable for the draft. Instead, the defense minister will be required to draft only enough Haredi students to fill out the quota.

The amendment will also defer any application of criminal sanctions to ultra-Orthodox draft-dodgers until June 30, 2023.

The government plans to have the Knesset pass the amendment before it votes on the annual budget at the end of the month.

The existing law was spearheaded by the Yesh Atid party, which is now in the opposition, and its Knesset members lambasted the proposed amendment.

Faction chairman MK Ofer Shelah said that if the amendment passes, the government “would no longer have the moral authority to draft people into the people’s army and send them to defend the homeland.” He also predicted that the amendment would be overturned by the High Court of Justice.

When the existing law was first proposed, Shelah continued, the ultra-Orthodox parties labelled the imposition of criminal sanctions on yeshiva students who refused to serve as their red line. Yet the amendment doesn’t eliminate those sanctions, he noted; it merely postpones them for six years.

At a conference against changing the law, which was held in the Knesset last week, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid was even more vehement.

“Pay attention to the timing,” he said. “Security services throughout the country are stretched to the limit to protect all Israeli citizens from knife-wielding terrorists. Yet at this very moment ... the government is trying to pass a law against Israel Defense Forces soldiers.”