60,000 ultra-orthodox Israelis face call-up as exemption ends

 

Jerusalem

Israel's Defence minister Ehud Barak has given Army chiefs one month to draw up a plan to enlist around 60,000 ultra-orthodox young men who were legally exempted from compulsory military service while they pursued religious studies.

But the move, which follows the expiry yesterday of the law providing for the exemptions, seems unlikely to enact the early mass enlistment of the students at yeshivas or religious colleges that many secular Israelis would like to see.

The so-called "Tal law" fell after being struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court earlier this year. The centrist Kadima party walked out of the governing coalition last month when it failed to secure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's agreement to a successor law which would have phased in enlistment of steadily growing numbers of young ultra-orthodox men.

Instead Mr Netanyahu infuriated many secular critics by siding with his ultra-orthodox coalition allies and favouring a much more modest stance, which Kadima calculated would leave the long standing regime of exemptions broadly in place.

Until a new law can be passed, the government is – at least in theory – bound by the old 1949 Military Service Law, subsequently amended in 1986, which requires the drafting of all Jewish citizens reaching the age of 18.

But the difficulties for the Israel Defence Forces in rapidly absorbing large numbers of ultra-orthodox men, the length of time – around a year – it takes to conscript a soldier from the time of issuing an initial warrant, and the dangers of a wholesale revolt by potential ultra-orthodox conscripts, will render such enlistment unlikely before a new law is put before the Knesset.

That is despite doubts that Mr Netanyahu will have a majority ahead of fresh elections next year for a new law reflecting what Knesset member Yohanan Plesner, the author of the rejected Kadima proposal, said yesterday would be a "sell-out to the ultra-orthodox parties".

The coalition's majority (65 out of 120 Knesset seats) includes 15 members of the secular Yisrael Beiteinu party who are adamantly in favour of recruiting both ultra-orthodox and Arab citizens.

Mr Plesner said: "We are now entering a period of constitutional, legal and social crisis until there is new legislation." Adding that the total number of ultra-orthodox affected would also including 8,000 reaching the age of 18 this year, he said he did not envisage legislation passing in the current Knesset.

"There's no way the military can absorb 68,000 yeshiva students at a moment's notice. And much as he might like to, the Prime Minister cannot outsource the problem to the military. It needs to be resolved at the level of government and parliament," he added. But Mr Plesner also said the current vacuum could expose the government to High court petitions challenging its failure to enact the 1949 law.

The Ministry of Defence said the IDF would take into account "the requirements and values of the IDF, and the principle of levelling the playing field/'burden sharing'" as well as "the suitability of individuals for military service". In the long run, recruitment would contribute to "vocational training and important integration of the ultra-orthodox community into Israel's labour market".

The exemptions have grown massively from around 400 granted to rabbinical students after the foundation of the state to rebuild religious scholarship destroyed by the Holocaust.

'Time running out' for nuclear deal

Time for a peaceful solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions is "running out", the Israeli Prime Minister told US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta yesterday during talks on differences between the two governments on the issue.

They came the day after Mr Netanyahu had done nothing in a series of television interviews to defuse speculation that Israel is contemplating a possible unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Mr Panetta sought to reassure Israel that the US had "options that we are prepared to implement", but Mr Netanyahu said the Iranian regime "believes the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program. This must change quickly because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out."

Donald Macintyre

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