Netanyahu, Haredim discuss sweeping military exemptions, with decision expected soon

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A new law regulating ultra-Orthodox military conscription is likely to be pushed off until the Knesset’s winter session, and the government is expected to issue an interim decision on draft exemptions for religious scholars within weeks following a Monday meeting between the prime minister and Haredi parties.

In the meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas agreed to “immediately promote” unspecified steps to advance a new bill, according to a Tuesday statement from Shas. Despite a push from UTJ to legislate immediately, Shas’s statement noted that the bill is not ready, and did not commit to a timeline.

Instead, in the coming weeks the cabinet is expected to pass a government decision on ultra-Orthodox enlistment, according to a source familiar with the matter, in order to show both the High Court of Justice and Haredi parties that progress is being made toward resolving the quandary surrounding religious scholar draft exemptions.

The conscription bill will be tied to a separate bill to improve service conditions for enlisted soldiers, and will be presented together. In April, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant pushed for higher pay and some shorter service terms, as part of guaranteeing his support for tweaks to the exemption policy.

Securing sweeping military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox community is a core shared goal for UTJ and Shas, which have promoted the Netanyahu government’s plan to curtail judicial power in part to solve the draft issue.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down the current enlistment exemption method as discriminatory, and the government’s 15th and current extension on a deadline for producing a new law is set to expire at the end of July.

Illustrative: Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces’ ‘Nahal Haredi’ unit study at the Peles Military Base, FILE. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

However, the underlying law setting out draft exemptions for full-time religious scholars — upon which the Defense Ministry currently relies — will expire on June 30, likely truncating the government’s timeline to two weeks.

On Monday, the Movement for Quality Government watchdog organization petitioned the High Court to formally shorten the government’s response timeline to the end of June.

If the government fails to either pass a law or receive a High Court extension before its ultimate deadline, the Defense Ministry would have to decide to either enlist draft-age Israelis engaging in full-time religious study or risk being in violation of the law.

When they agreed to enter a coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud in December, Haredi parties secured promises that the government would settle the draft issue alongside passing the state budget. But the budget passed in May without an attendant enlistment bill, and with less than two months until the end of the Knesset’s summer session, coalition members say a new draft law is expected to be pushed to the winter session, which begins in October.

Head of the Shas party Aryeh Deri, leads a faction meeting, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In April, the coalition discussed a proposal to lower the final exemption age from the army from the current 26 to 23 or 21.

While soldiers are generally drafted from age 18, many full-time religious students are thought to remain in study programs longer than they normally would in order to dodge the draft by claiming deferments until they reach the age of final exemption. By lowering the permanent exemption age, the government had hoped to spur those Haredi men to leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age.

Defense Minister Gallant has been reported to support setting the age of exemption at 23, but on condition that another bill is passed that would give additional benefits to soldiers and veterans, including pay raises and shorter service stints for non-essential roles.

Even should such a new proposal be passed, experts say it would likely be challenged in the High Court.

Emmanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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