Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Sunday to increase significantly the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens who serve in Israel’s military or civilian volunteer corps, an effort that he hoped would quiet an outraged public and also save his broad unity coalition government.
A week after disbanding a committee he had appointed to address the issue of draft exemptions, Netanyahu embraced the committee’s core ideas. He appointed its chairman, a member of parliament from the centrist Kadima Party and one of the top ministers from his own more conservative Likud Party to work out the details of a new conscription law.
The goal is to have the Cabinet approve the legislation by Sunday so parliament can act on it before an Aug. 1 deadline to replace the existing law that exempts thousands of yeshiva students from serving in the military. That law was struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court in February.
The issue has fueled resentment over how national burdens are shared and has exposed social divisions.
“Neither the army, the economy nor society can continue on the current path,” Netanyahu said on Sunday at the start of his Cabinet meeting, according to a statement released by his office. “We are citizens of one state, and we must all participate in bearing the burden of service to the state.”
The prime minister called for “historic change” and promised incentives for those who serve and sanctions against those who do not.
The move came hours after a protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday that drew about 20,000 people demanding a broader military draft and the resignation of several politicians.
It also followed a week of political turmoil in which several important members of Netanyahu’s coalition threatened to quit over the issue, including the Yisrael Beiteinu Party of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; ultra-Orthodox factions; and the large Kadima bloc whose surprise move to join the coalition two months ago gave the prime minister a 94-seat majority in the 120-member parliament.
For now, the political crisis seems to have been contained: Lieberman was silent on Sunday, Kadima appeared to have been appeased and the ultra-Orthodox parties were expected to oppose the legislation, but remain in the coalition.
However, the details yet to be worked out could be tricky, including how many yeshiva students and Arabs will be expected to join up, and how quickly; what will the financial sanctions be against those who refuse; and how will the needs of the ultra-Orthodox in matters like segregation of the sexes be handled?
Only about 17 percent of ultra-Orthodox men now serve in the military or perform civilian national service work; 75 percent of other Jewish men serve in the military. Overall, about 60,000 yeshiva students are exempt from the draft under the law the Supreme Court struck down, a huge expansion of the 400 waivers granted at Israel’s founding to ensure the future of Torah study. Several thousand of the top students are expected to remain exempt.
Arabs generally do not serve in the Israeli military, but the number performing national service has increased tenfold in recent years and some polls have shown that a majority of Israeli Arabs support requiring such service as a way to better integrate into Israel’s work force.