Ultra-Orthodox Take Aim at Military Draft

Netanyahu hopes to thread the needle between his Haredi and secular partners.

No matter what the committee developing recommendations for drafting young ultra-Orthodox men into national service recommends next week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely be faced with a serious coalition crisis.

When Netanyahu met on Tuesday with the chairman of the committee, MK Yohanan Plesner, he was also confronted with the yawning gap between what he wanted and what the panel will propose. The committee is slated to submit its recommendations next week.

While Netanyahu would prefer a solution that approaches the positions of Haredi leaders, who have rejected nearly all the proposals, he knows that the secular members of his coalition expect major changes in the state's approach to Haredi enlistment.

Meanwhile the clock is winding down on the Tal Law, which was passed in 2002 with the aim of encouraging young Haredi men to leave full-time yeshiva study to enter the work force or sign up for military or national service. In February the High Court of Justice ruled it unconstitutional and gave the state until August 1 to come up with an alternative. The Plesner Committee was established to do just that.

A majority of committee members wants to strictly limit the number of yeshiva students whose talent for religious studies can exempt them from service and also to impose sanctions on draft dodgers.

Plesner supports setting a quota for the scholarly exemption of 1,500 members of each draft class. Today that represents 20% of the Haredi men who will be subject to the draft, but if the community's high birth rate continues it will amount to just 12 percent within a decade.

Netanyahu and Haredi leaders want a more flexible "target" rather than a strict quota.

As for sanctions, Plesner proposes a complex arrangement of personal, community and institutional sanctions. A Haredi man without an exemption who does not begin military or equivalent by age 23 would be forced to repay all state support from the previous five years, about NIS 90,000 and would lose his eligibility for housing benefits and discounts on city taxes and National Insurance Institute payments.

Plesner also proposes reducing the budget for Haredi yeshivas as a whole and specific yeshivas whose students refuse to be drafted if enlistment targets are not met.

He also seeks much closer supervision of yeshiva enrollment numbers, which determine state funding, to guarantee accuracy, as well as pursuing criminal charges against enrolled students who are found to be working.

Haredim and their representative on the panel, MK Ze'ev Elkin, want to focus on incentives such as high-paying service tracks rather than on sanctions, which they believes will only increase resistance.

The Israel Defense Forces has expressed willingness to add two or three new Haredi Nahal battalions, to expand technology tracks for Haredim to "lend" Haredi transcripts to other security services.

Another proposal is to establish hesder yeshivas, combining religious studies and military service, for Haredim.

Around 30 percent of each Haredi draft class is expected to volunteer for civilian national service. Around 50 percent will choose military service, with the remaining 20 percent covered by the scholar exemptions.

The proposed personal sanctions worry Haredi leaders the most, partly because they believe they can get around institutional sanctions and partly because they want to maintain control over their followers.

But personal choice is critical for Plesner, as it apparently was for the court in striking down the Tal Law.

On Wednesday, there was a minor storm over the disclosure that Haredi men would be allowed to defer enlistment until age 23. Activists accused the Plesner Committee of "collaborating" with the Haredim, noting that by that age most Haredim are married with children and thus are paid more by the IDF and are very unlikely to be assigned to combat units.

Plesner said the Haredim sought deferment to age 28. He also noted that many religious-Zionist yeshiva students enlist at 21 and serve for a full three years.

While it's clear that the IDF would prefer younger combat soldiers, the committee believes that around 20% of Haredim in a given draft cohort will choose combat duty.

If the current recommendations are the ones submitted to Netanyahu next week he will find himself on a collision course with the ultra-Orthodox parties. The committee is highly unlikely to relent on the main sticking points, quotas and sanctions. Without Netanyahu's support it will be very difficult to push the Plesner recommendations through the Knesset.

But if Netanyahu continues to take the Haredi position, he faces a triple threat. One, from the secular members of his coalition. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made it clear that his Yisrael Beiteinu party will accept nothing less than a more equitable draft model, while the Plesner Committee was perhaps the only legitimate excuse for Shaul Mofaz to bring his Kadima party into the coalition in the dead of night.

Two, from the secular public, which is expecting far-reaching changes. And three, from the High Court, which will likely strike down any successor to the Tal Law that lacks teeth.