Netanyahu moves to end military exemptions for Haredi Jews

July 9, 2012

(Protestors take part in a demonstration calling for an amendment to the country's compulsory draft policy opposed by the powerful ultra-Orthodox community, in Tel Aviv July 7, 2012. REUTERS/Baz Ratner )

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the go-ahead on Sunday to reforms that would end the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from compulsory military service, in an about-face hours after 20,000 Israelis marched for change.

Military service is a highly emotive issue for Israelis, most of whom start a two or three-year service at the age of 18. Many are also called up for reserve duty. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are exempt to allow them to pursue religious studies.

“Everyone must bear the burden. We will provide positive incentives to those who serve and negative incentives to draft dodgers,” Netanyahu told a meeting of lawmakers from his right-wing Likud party.

At his urging, the Likud legislators ratified the recommendations of a government-appointed panel formulating a new military conscription law that would cancel exemptions for most Jewish seminary students.

The issue has put huge strain on Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. Only last Monday and under pressure from religious leaders, the prime minister dismissed the panel, headed by Yohanan Plesner, a member of the centrist Kadima party that is the biggest partner in the coalition.

The committee went ahead and issued its report two days later, in defiance of Netanyahu and with the support of Kadima leader and Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz, who issued veiled threats to quit the government only two months after joining it.

About 20,000 people marched in Tel Aviv on Saturday night calling for an “equal sharing of the national burden” and demanding Netanyahu change course and back the committee’s proposals.

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