Benjamin Netanyahu faces crisis over draft dodging rebellion

A committee has said that 80 per cent of ultra-Orthodox Jews should do national service
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Benjamin Netanyahu's two-month-old broadened coalition hit its first crisis yesterday over the controversial issue of compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Shaul Mofaz, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the centrist Kadima party, warned that the Israeli Prime Minister had a "matter of days" to implement the report of a committee chaired by a Kadima Knesset member recommending a major increase in military service by the ultra-Orthodox.

The threat of a walkout by the party, whose entry to the government expanded the ruling coalition to a formidable 94 out of 120 Knesset seats, follows a decision by Mr Netanyahu to "dissolve" the committee in the face of opposition to the proposal by the ultra-Orthodox party leaders in his coalition.

Nevertheless, the committee chairman, Yohanan Plesner, went ahead yesterday by announcing his recommendation that 80 per cent of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men of draft age should be in military or alternative civilian national service by 2016. Under the Plesner plan, ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers could face fines or even criminal punishment, and lose property tax and housing benefits as well as education scholarships. The widespread exemptions on the grounds of religious study would be narrowed to a mere 1,500 outstanding students per year.

"The report is the result of the first major test of our partnership with the Prime Minister and the Likud," Mr Mofaz told a Kadima party meeting. "I expect the Prime Minister to adopt the committee's decisions. This is a condition for us to remain in the government."

The exemptions for religious study started soon after the state's foundation when 400 students were allowed to forgo military service to build up religious scholarship wiped out by the Holocaust. That number has grown to about 60,000 today.

The Tal law governing the present exemption system has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The ruling was one of several factors that led Mr Netanyahu to call a September election – until Kadima shored up his coalition.