Virtually all ultra-Orthodox males should complete military or national service in some capacity by the age of 24, the former head of the Committee to Advance Equality in Sharing the Burden MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) said Wednesday at a press conference in which he unveiled the panel's recommendations.
In the run-up to Wednesday's press conference, a bone of contention emerged over the so-called personal sanctions on individuals who refuse to enlist. The haredi parties insisted on a compromise that would see penalties imposed on the institutions that enable these individuals to study, rather than on the individuals themselves. Kadima insisted on imposing personal penalties but Netanyahu, who did not want to lose his haredi coalition partners, eventually decided to dissolve the committee. Several days earlier, the hard-line Yisrael Beytenu faction also said it would no longer participate in the committee's hearing because it refused to discuss the issue of Arab enlistment.
Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially disbanded the committee on Monday, Plesner said he would nonetheless present the recommendations of the committee, which was appointed by the government in the wake of the High Court of Justice's decision to do away with the effective blanket waiver the ultra-Orthodox enjoy under the so called Tal Law. Plesner said the committee members agreed to advocate the gradual application of the mandatory service requirement on the haredi population using financial disincentives, with the hope of having at least 80 percent of eligible haredim join the Israel Defense Forces by 2016.
"We adopted a moderate solution that takes into consideration the needs of the haredi population," Plesner said. "We believe haredim should enjoy deferment but not beyond a certain age when military service is no longer plausible. The service options we charted are real; the other proposals I got did not talk about drafting haredim at an earlier age. The other programs talked about having them begin serving at age 28, after which they would receive an automatic waiver, which is in effect a Tal Law B. "
If the measures are adopted and written into law, upon turning 18, haredi youth would have to either enlist in the IDF — the army has special programs tailored to haredi demands — or ask for deferment until the age of 22 in order to complete their yeshiva studies. If the latter option is chosen, they would have to serve 24 months in the IDF or 18 months in some national service capacity once they turn 22, unless they are among a select group of 1,500 outstanding yeshiva students who would get a permanent waiver.
Those who dodge service would be subject to what has been termed "personal sanctions," and would have to pay heavy monetary penalties and the full rate of monthly National Insurance fees. They would also be denied the monthly allowances yeshiva students currently enjoy. Eventually, the state would be able to file criminal charges against those who choose not serve.
A draft dodger would face a 7,500 shekel ($1,915) fine at first, and then a 75 shekel ($19) fine for each day that goes by without serving. Also, they would lose the monthly allowance of 500 to 900 shekels ($127 to $178) they receive from the Ministry of Religious Services. Their yeshiva or kollel would also be de-funded to a certain extent. Currently, yeshiva students pay a reduced rate of 110 shekels ($28) for National Insurance services and enjoy a guaranteed income supplement because they spend most of their time in school, but draft dodgers would lose these benefits, as well as child allowances, housing subsidies and tax benefits.
In January, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Tal Law is unconstitutional and must be replaced by August 1. The justices said the de facto exemption of an entire segment of the population from the mandatory service requirement discriminates against a majority of Israelis and is inconsistent with Israel's core values as a Jewish democracy. They further said the law grossly undermines the notion of equality among Israeli citizens.
Netanyahu created the committee in May immediately after forging a unity government with then opposition leader Shaul Mofaz (Kadima). At the time, Mofaz said the rewriting of a more just law was one of the conditions he set when he negotiated his entry to the government. On Monday, Netanyahu decided to disband the Plesner committee, saying it failed to meet its goal of formulating an alternative to the Tal Law that would successfully attain a majority vote in the Knesset. Netanyahu's move invoked strong reactions in the Knesset and among the so called "Camp of Suckers" protesters who have been protesting to repeal the Tal Law for several months. Netanyahu's move placed tremendous pressure on Mofaz to decide whether or not to keep his party in the coalition, or withdraw six weeks after joining the government. Opposition leader MK Shelly Yachimovich said she is already working on a measure to call early elections.
Friction and disagreement had surrounded the Plesner committee since its inception, but on Monday the public dispute over its legitimacy and effectiveness was brought to an abrupt halt, with Netanyahu's decision to disperse it. The decision also triggered a slew of accusations between Kadima and the Likud. Netanyahu's associates explained on Monday that "ever since three of the committee members resigned, it had in essence lost its legitimacy. The Knesset would never have passed its recommendations, and there really was no reason for it to continue to exist."
In its announcement on Wednesday, Plesner said the committee members also believed more Arabs should serve, but left it up to the government and the Knesset to determine the specific measures that would apply to this segment of the population, as this was beyond the scope of its mandate.