Haredi Military Draft Bill Fails Knesset Vote After Arab Coalition Member Votes No

Bill on draft exemptions for yeshiva students falls one vote short of moving to next stage, with Meretz lawmaker voting against it in protest of 'racist' policies. The government pushes for another vote this week

Cabinet members in the Knesset on Monday.
Cabinet members in the Knesset on Monday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A bill regulating draft exemptions for yeshiva students was shot down in the Knesset on Monday, after a coalition member voted against it in protest of government policies she says target Arabs.

With the bill having failed to pass its first of three votes, the government plans to fast-track a new vote on Wednesday to avoid a late January deadline for the current law’s expiration.

The Monday voted ended in a 54-54 tie, meaning it cannot be brought to a second vote. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced they would seek a new vote later this week.

Ahead of the vote, it was unclear whether the coalition had the necessary votes, amid tensions between the United Arab List and other coalition members surrounding the Jewish National Fund’s forestation work in the Negev last week, opposed by the Islamist party’s Bedouin voter base.

Meretz lawmaker Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi ended up being the only coalition member to vote against the bill. Officials in her party said they had not been notified of her intention to vote no, and Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz reprimanded her.

Three of the United Arab List’s four Knesset members voted for the bill, and Mazen Ghanaim abstained.

Rinawie Zoabi said that “the coalition I’m a member of crossed two red lines last week,” citing the authorities’ “brutal” response to Bedouin protests against the JNF’s tree-planting on agricultural land, and the government’s support for a “racist and fascist” bill preventing Palestinian family unification. “I voted... for the Arab community,” she said. “This coalition promised change... and now it has to prove it.”

The Joint List, a predominantly Arab three-way coalition that sits in the opposition, hailed Rinawie Zoabi's vote against a "militaristic bill to strengthen the occupation military."

The draft bill is part of a broader proposal by the government to bring more ultra-Orthodox men into the military and encourage more of them to enter the workforce. It was laid on the Knesset’s agenda on Monday because of a previous ruling by the High Court of Justice establishing that the current law, which exempts yeshiva students from the draft, must be nullified.

With the bill having failed to pass, the government will be obliged to abide by this ruling, unless a new bill is passed.

Under the government’s proposal to discourage ultra-Orthodox men from remaining yeshiva students until they are 24, so as to avoid being drafted, in two years yeshiva students would receive a draft exemption at the age of 21; a year later, at the age of 22; and a year after that, at age 23.

The proposed legislation also set annual Haredi draft targets with the aim of gradually increasing the number of those enlisting, and proposes a reduction in the financial support for yeshivas should draft targets not be met.

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