Members of the Peri committee on the equality of burden on Wednesday voted in favor of imposing extensive financial and personal penalties, including filing criminal charges, against ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers who fail to report for military duty. Wednesday's vote, which was carried 4:1 with one abstention, brings to an end a coalition crisis that threatened to destabilize the government.
The committee, comprised of chairman Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Likud), Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi), Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch (Yisrael Beytenu), Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) and Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnuah), was tasked with formulating legislation to replace the Tal Law, which aimed to regulate yeshiva (religious school) students' exemptions from military and national service and expired in August 2012.
Ya'alon, Aharonovitch, Livnat and Peri voted in favor of the reform, while Ariel voted against it. Peretz, a former defense minister, abstained.
The favorable vote was made possible after the article detailing the sanctions was revised to exclude a section stating that the defense minister would have no discretion in the matter. A new article was introduced at Ya'alon's request, extending the grace period afforded to the ultra-Orthodox community from 2016 to 2017.
The panel presented its recommendations on Sunday, proposing that all haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youths of drafting age be made to enlist, allowing for only 1,800 yeshiva students who meet the criteria of "exceptional religious scholars" to be exempted from every draft class. The committee further recommended subjecting haredi draft dodgers to a series of financial and personal sanctions, and sought to enable authorities to bring criminal action against them.
The recommendation pertaining to sanctions, known as Article 39, met with fierce opposition from Ya'alon, who said he would not support the reform unless it was removed. The statement prompted Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid to threaten that "any attempt to torpedo the Peri committee will bring about the end of this coalition."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday asked Ya'alon to drop his objections to the article, in an attempt to bring the emerging coalition crisis to an end, but it was unclear until the very last minute whether Ya'alon would remain entrenched in his position or vote in favor of the bill so as not to clash with Netanyahu.
According to Army Radio, Ya'alon's vote was in line with Netanyahu's instructions to push the bill through, even if it meant yielding to Yesh Atid's demands on the matter.
The new article stipulates that if by the end of the grace period the haredi community fails to meet its draft quotas, those refusing to comply with the draft would face criminal charges.
"The committee has to do everything in its power to avoid sending an aggressive message that would impinge on the existing [haredi] enlistment process, which has begun to take shape in recent years. We have to be careful not to fan the flames," the defense minister said.
Ariel, who voted against the bill, accused Yesh Atid of "breaching the coalition agreement," saying the party "trampled all over the understanding reached with Habayit Hayehudi" on the matter.
The bill will be reviewed by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee before it is presented to the Knesset for a vote.
'We are not the enemy'
Lapid held a press conference on Wednesday afternoon and urged the haredi community to look at the draft reform as an opportunity: "Don't look at us as the enemy, declaring war on you. You won't be sorry that this reform was passed, it will only improve your situation."
Following the past example of "Ricky Cohen" -- a fictitious woman he introduced as a representative of the middle class while trying to push the state budget through -- Lapid extended his cast of characters to include "Asher," a 28-year-old father of five from Jerusalem and "Haim," a 16-year-old boy from Bnei Brak, the largest ultra-Orthodox city in central Israel.
"I'm talking to you, my haredi brothers. Don't let anyone stop you from reaching your potential. What's happening here is not an attack on the world of the Torah. No one is seeking to undermine your world and we have no intention of imposing secularism on you, but the current situation cannot go on," he explained.
The haredi community, he stressed, "Can no longer stand on the sidelines and say that the Israel isn't its problem. My haredi brothers, we need you to be armed with weapons, as well. Terrorists do not distinguish between us. They don’t think that you are more or less Jewish than us. I want to tell Asher and Haim and every other haredi youth in the country, if Syria is falling apart and thousands of al-Qaida terrorists are lurking at the border -- your northern border -- then we need you there too."
"This reform doesn’t apply only to you -- it also applies to the state. We have committed to see you through this transition," Lapid said.
Public in favor of criminal sanctions
Sixty-seven percent of Israelis support imposing criminal penalties, including jail time, on ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers, compared with 28% who oppose personal sanctions, a recent Midgam Institute poll has found.
The survey, commissioned by the Knesset's TV channel, also found that 64% of the public believes that the military service performed by hesder yeshivah soldiers should be extended from 16 months to two years, while 29% said there was no need to do so. Hesder is a program that enables religious men to incorporate Torah study with mandatory military service.
Meanwhile Tuesday, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni criticized the proposed draft reform, saying that it was "a hypocritical bill."
"It speaks of the equal sharing of burden, but there is no equality to speak of," Livni said, adding that she also doubted that the reform would stand up to scrutiny by the High Court of Justice.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Shay Piron (Yesh Atid) found himself in the eye of the storm Tuesday, after saying that his party "will not make parasites kosher … If you want to be a citizen of Israel you have to shoulder some of the burden. The days of populist statements that turn the Torah into an entire sector's prison, just to prevent their children from meeting mine -- those days are over."
"This unfortunate statement expresses Yesh Atid's fundamental hatred of the haredim," United Torah Judaism MK Yakov Litzman said in response.
"It is very regrettable that the man serving as the education minister does not shy away from inciting against a large sector, whose only crime is being haredi," said Litzman.