JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waded into one of Israel's deepest political morasses on Monday, urging lawmakers to find a "just" replacement for a law that has exempted tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory military service.
The Israeli leader appeared before a parliamentary committee charged with crafting a new draft law after the current system was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. With a July 31 deadline looming, the committee must find a compromise palatable to both to secular and modern Orthodox religious parties, whose followers serve in the military, and to ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who claim their loyalists are serving the state by serving God.
Netanyahu told the panel's first meeting that a more equitable sharing of the country's defense burden must be implemented gradually, and without pitting any one sector against the other.
The panel "will hear many voices," he said. "There are many voices in the nation."
Netanyahu said a new law must include an "equal allocation of the burden," be implemented gradually and include Israeli Arabs, who also do not serve in the military. Proposals floated by lawmakers would all drastically reduce the number of exemptions for religious study, and some would make military or community service a condition for receiving welfare allowances.
The current selective draft has been a long-festering sore. Conscription is supposed to be compulsory, with men over 18 serving three years. Community service is an alternative option for some, including people who are physically unable to serve.
But Israel's founders set a precedent that came to haunt the state when they agreed in the 1940s to exempt 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild great schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust.
As ultra-Orthodox parties became power brokers, the numbers mounted.
More than 60,000 ultra-Orthodox young men of military age have been exempted. Fewer than 1,300 were drafted in the past year, the military says.
Secular and modern Orthodox communities resent the privilege, which has only deepened the divide between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society.
The exemptions also established a pattern that carries well beyond military age: In 2011, 45 percent of ultra-Orthodox men did not work, instead continuing their religious studies while relying on state handouts. The system has led to deep poverty in the sector.
Israel's Supreme Court forced the government to tackle the issue when it ruled in February that the draft privileges must be eliminated by July 31.
Two weeks ago, the issue threatened to
bring down Netanyahu's government. His two main coalition partners, one secular and one religious, had staked out firm positions against sweeping compromise, raising the possibility that the government could collapse.
Lawmakers had already begun the process of disbanding parliament and calling early elections. But in a stunning, middle-of-the-night move, Netanyahu brought the secular Kadima Party — the legislature's largest — into his coalition, giving him an unassailable majority of 94 of parliament's 120 seats.
Kadima's chairman, former military chief Shaul Mofaz, is a vigorous advocate of universal conscription.
No matter how the replacement draft law shapes up, integrating large numbers of strictly religious conscripts will be a major challenge for the military.
Many ultra-Orthodox men would have to be taught basic skills, like rudimentary math, because their school systems barely teach them. Their aversion to direct contact with women could undercut the military's declared commitment to giving female conscripts equal opportunities.
Insubordination in the military could grow if ultra-Orthodox men find themselves forced to choose between religious beliefs and commanders' orders. And the costs will be high: Drafting this community would require special arrangements, ranging from special kitchens conforming with the strictest interpretation of Jewish dietary law to exclusively ultra-Orthodox units.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, will be inducting thousands of unwilling men over the objection of rabbis. Rabbis are struggling fiercely to keep their community cloistered, and they see conscription compromising devotion to a holy life.
Today, the military tries to woo ultra-Orthodox conscripts by accommodating their special lifestyle, said Maj. Amir Vaknin, who oversees the military's ultra-Orthodox draft programs. The message to rabbis is that the conscript's way of life won't be threatened, he added.
"We won't change (them), we integrate without changing. We offer a profession, an income, then soldiers return to ultra-Orthodox life," Vaknin said.