Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman depicts himself as a leader of efforts to curb draft exemptions to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. He even scuttled the formation of two coalition governments over the issue, but a Haaretz investigation found that, while he was defense minister, his office arranged military exemptions for hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men.
Lieberman denies the allegations, but according to the accounts, his term as defense minister, from 2016 to 2018, was a golden age of sorts for well-connected ultra-Orthodox men seeking to avoid the draft. The beneficiaries of access to Lieberman’s office at the Defense Ministry were said to have included the sons of politicians, rabbis and other well-known figures from all the streams of the ultra-Orthodox world – Hasidim, non-Hasidim, Sephardim and even members of the Jerusalem Faction, who were violently demonstrating at the time against conscription of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. In addition, oversight of draft deferments provided to Haredi, ultra-Orthodox, draft-age men became less strict during the period.
This is the same Lieberman who on Sunday of this week tweeted that ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Knesset member Uri Maklev “is trying to cover up for the draft dodgers and the [efforts of] ultra-Orthodox parties to squeeze money out of the state budget at the expense of the health system, young couples and soldiers.” And last week, Lieberman wrote: “I’ve just seen rioting by ultra-Orthodox from the Jerusalem Faction at the entrance to Jerusalem. In the next coalition government, we will ensure that funding goes to health and to soldiers and not to yeshivas and yeshiva students.”
According to various sources, Avi Abuhatzeira, Lieberman’s adviser on ultra-Orthodox issues, used to send his requests for draft exemptions directly to Meitav, the military unit responsible for the screening and placing draftees. If this is true, it constitutes a serious breach of regulations, military sources said.
Lieberman’s office vehemently denies the allegations. “The former defense minister never intervened in any case relating to draft exemptions, not even through a hint,” his office said. “As with requests from the rest of the public, requests from the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] community on issues involving the draft are dealt with without interference, in accordance with decisions made at professional levels.”
Lieberman denied the allegations on Monday, saying, "the Office of the Defense Minister, even if it wanted to, does not have the ability to hand out exemptions." Referring to the ultra-Orthodox, Lieberman said, "they're worried that they might wind up outside of the coalition and budget committee and won't get what they're used to getting. So they're using all the lies, fabrications and obscenities they can. It's all kosher. This is stupidity and a lack of understanding."
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According to the accounts by sources who spoke to Haaretz, Abuhatzeira, who was not only an aide to Lieberman but also a confidant, was the key player in the arrangement. He is said to have received the various requests from Haredim and was involved in obtaining exemptions on an almost daily basis. During Lieberman’s tenure, the offices of all of the ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset passed along dozens of requests for exemptions to Lieberman’s office and in most cases, Abuhatzeira was successful in obtaining a draft exemption, the sources said.
“The Knesset members themselves or their office aides would contact Abuhatzeira by calling him directly, by leaving him a message or by email, and he would immediately get on it,” said one source. “It was routine. No one was hiding it.” Abuhatzeira was really “like part of the Haredi parties,” the source added.
Among those whom Abuhatzeira assisted were the son of an ultra-Orthodox politician and a man well-known in the Haredi community who had submitted forged documents to the army and who later received a medical exemption from the draft after Abuhatzeira intervened.
“The cases Abuhatzeira worked on that I was aware of were very complicated,” said a source from outside the army. “They were cases in which the chances of getting an exemption without intervention were nil.”
Associates of Abuhatzeira said he had permission to work directly with the office of the head of the army’s planning and personnel management division, which referred him directly to Meitav. But other sources disputed that he had direct access to Meitav.
“Abuhatzeira received permission to speak directly with Meitav maybe once or twice, and even then he had to provide a full report to the higher-ups,” a source insisted. “If Abuhatzeira was sitting for entire days at Meitav headquarters in violation of regulations, that would be a serious mishap.”
A source who had served in very senior positions in the army said that he hadn’t been aware of Abuhatzeira’s activities in real time but had noticed that Abuhatzeira was very involved in issues involving ultra-Orthodox conscription.
“He was warned several times to work in an organized, transparent fashion,” the source said. “The senior staff was aware of his dominance on the issue of Haredim, and the orders were that he should deal only with the senior officers and not with lower-level commanders. He was warned about this many times. Abuhatzeira wasn’t supposed to get anywhere near the Meitav headquarters and if he did so, it was very irregular.”
Lt. Col. Revivo
From information that has reached Haaretz, it emerges that Abuhatzeira was not working with any kind of approval from the military and directed his requests primarily to Lt. Col. Tzachi Revivo, who is now a colonel and who at the time was the deputy commander of Meitav. According to various accounts, Lieberman’s aide visited Meitav headquarters on a regular basis in connection with his requests.
“I saw Abuhatzeira around our office a lot,” said someone who had worked at Meitav headquarters. “He would deal with all kinds of things here. We were dealing then with all kinds of stories about Haredim.”
Another source who worked at Meitav at the time claimed that there was an understanding among the top brass of the army, coming from Lieberman’s office, that “ultra-Orthodox representatives have an open door to the army.”
Revivo also met with Lieberman at least once at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. No other army officer was present at the meeting and Revivo had not obtained permission from his superiors to meet with the defense minister.
“This is the first time that I have heard about such a meeting,” a former senior officer in the army’s manpower division said. “Every army commander who wants to meet someone from the political echelons must get the approval of everyone above him, up to the office of the chief of staff. Revivo never received such approval.”
Both Revivo and Lieberman deny that the meeting took place. “Lieberman doesn’t remember the name Tzachi Revivo or whoever you are talking about,” Lieberman’s office said. “It is possible that he attended one of the many discussions that took place at the defense minister’s offices.” Nevertheless, someone who worked in Revivo’s office confirmed that the meeting did indeed take place.
Another measure of Lieberman’s office’s activity was the number of draft exemptions issued by special decision, meaning that they were provided for reasons other than the usual grounds, which would include having a criminal record or a medical problem.
Lieberman was defense minister from May 2016 to November 2018. Data obtained by Haaretz show that in 2016, 64 yeshiva students received special exemptions; in 2017, there were 45; while in 2018, the number more than tripled to 158. Last year, after Lieberman left the ministry, the number dropped to 82.
The Israeli army spokesman said in response for this article: “Meetings between Israeli army officers and the political level and its advisers are conducted under orderly army regulations and require a hierarchy of approvals. Meetings that are not approved in this manner are not acceptable, and if they took place without approval, that would be a mishap. The Israeli army will investigate the claims made in the report in depth and the results of the examination will be presented to the chief of staff. The lessons will be drawn and, to the extent required, disciplinary action will be taken against those involved.”
For his part, Abuhatzeira said: “Like the thousands of other requests received by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s office during his tenure – requests that came from every sector of the State of Israel – the requests that are the subject of the report were dealt with seriously and were referred to the professionals for consideration. And everything was done with the approval and the authority of the professionals.”
Along with the exemptions for well-connected Haredim, during Lieberman’s tenure, the army granted hundreds of exemptions to members of the extremist ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem Faction, even as Lieberman was repeatedly railing against the faction’s demonstrations. In February 2017, for example, after one demonstration, Lieberman commented: “The very existence of these demonstrations protesting enlistment in the Israeli army and trying to undermine the authority of the state is unacceptable,” he said. “We will work with the options open to us at the Defense Ministry so that those participating in this ongoing incitement against the Israeli army don’t benefit from any concession, benefit or cooperation.”
Drying up the pool of deserters
According to sources within the Jerusalem Faction, army deserters and others who never reported to induction centers to declare their status as yeshiva students received military exemptions by mail without any explanation. A former senior army officer confirmed this and explained that it was not the doing of Lieberman’s office.
“This decision was a professional one,” he said. “Lieberman actually opposed the move, but we decided to dry up the pool of deserters.” According to the source, there were also deserters who were not ultra-Orthodox who received similar exemptions, “but the Haredim also got other concessions.” Nevertheless, according to another source, Abuhatzeira and Lieberman’s office made use of the decision. “Abuhatzeira asked the Haredim to calm things down and stop igniting the streets, explaining that he had lists [of names] and that they would be granted [draft] exemptions,” the source said.
During those years, many aspects of the process of obtaining draft deferments were made easier. Instead of requiring that young Haredim come to a local enlistment office to declare their yeshiva student status, army representatives began holding open houses in ultra-Orthodox communities, where the draftees could submit their deferment requests. Later on, yeshivas began submitting the final deferment papers on behalf of their students.
A document obtained by Haaretz shows that at the beginning of 2018, the army began granting other concessions: The conditions under which yeshiva students could travel abroad were eased somewhat, and it was decided that a yeshiva student caught working – in violation of his draft deferment – would not be immediately drafted, but instead would be put on probation for three months.
Senior army officers recognized the contradiction between Lieberman’s declared policy and his actual practices. “The order and the spirit of the instructions we received from his office were that we would deal with those who cooperate with us, but crack down on those who resist,” said one officer. But in fact, while there was close cooperation with the mainstream Haredim, the Jerusalem Faction, which opposed any cooperation with the army, also received concessions.
The Jerusalem mayor’s race
Lieberman’s cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox community was more overt in Jerusalem mayoral races in recent years. The Yisrael Beiteinu leader made efforts to get his associate Moshe Leon elected mayor. As part of that effort, in the run-up to the 2013 election, Lieberman met with the head of the Jerusalem Faction at the time, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, to persuade him not to support a mayoral candidate of his own.
Channel 12 News reported that Lieberman explained to the rabbi that he supported cancelling Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade. Seated next to Lieberman was Avi Abuhatzeira, who at some point asked those present not to record the meeting.
In the 2018 municipal election, Lieberman was successful. Leon was elected Jerusalem’s mayor, in part as a result of close cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox parties. According to reports in the Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom dailies, Leon and Arye Dery, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said that in return for their cooperation, Lieberman had promised to promote a milder version of a conscription bill that would be “acceptable to all the Haredim.”
Lieberman denied the reports, but several sources told Haaretz that Lieberman had indeed made such a promise.
On this issue too, Abuhatzeira was working behind the scenes, meeting on several occasions to discuss the bill with Jerusalem Rabbi Baruch Soloveitchik, who is responsible in the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community for issues relating to military conscription.
At the time, Soloveitchik is said to have told one of the Haredi candidates for Jerusalem mayor, Yossi Daitch, that he could not call on the public to support Daitch because support for Moshe Leon as mayor would result in a more lenient conscription bill.