‘Storm over ultra-Orthodox recruitment won’t topple Netanyahu’

While the government has appeared shaky in recent days as it comes under pressure over the issue of haredi enlistment, the coalition isn’t really in danger, experts say.

By David Isaac | | Topics: Orthodox Jews
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at Hakirya base in Tel Aviv, Dec. 24, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at Hakirya base in Tel Aviv, Dec. 24, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

The issue of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) army enlistment reached a boiling point this week as the Netanyahu government failed, despite feverish efforts, to draft legislation to address the issue before a High Court-mandated Wednesday deadline.

In a last-minute maneuver, the government requested a half-day extension to file its final response. The court hasn’t yet responded, as the government filed its request only a few minutes before midnight.

The government asked for a delay after the Attorney General’s Office, which has been at odds with the government over its haredi enlistment bill, circulated its draft response to the court regarding the proposed legislation, stating that conscription of haredim must start on April 1.

The attorney general argued that the state will lack the authority to do otherwise as a temporary order delaying the haredi draft expires on Monday.

The attorney general also said that the funding of yeshivas whose students don’t comply with the draft will be gradually halted; the state would continue funding the yeshivas until the end of the current school year, which ends on the fast August 13.

While nearly all Israelis agree that haredim must play a larger role in Israel’s national defense, coalition members have questioned the behavior and timing of the High Court, the attorney general and certain members of the coalition, accusing them of dual motives, namely, seeking to collapse the government.

The haredi parties have for years made up the most stable element of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, their constancy won by the prime minister’s readiness to continue funding their seminaries and providing other benefits.

According to reports, in a meeting with Netanyahu the haredi political leaders told him that if he passes a law with which they don’t agree, they will quit his government, but that if it’s the court that imposes a solution, they will stick by him.

Analysts told JNS that the issue is unlikely to bring about the government’s collapse.

A casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that the coalition is at risk, as it has appeared shaky in recent days. On Monday, New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar quit with his four-seat party (though not specifically over the haredi issue), while headlines blared that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had told ministers: “Without a draft law, there will be no government.”

On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that he would not support the coalition’s haredi proposal as it didn’t go far enough toward resolving the problem. The same day, Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Gantz, who leads the National Unity Party, said he would bolt the government if the Knesset passed the bill.

Gilad Malach, director of Israel Democracy Institute’s Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program, told JNS that even if Gantz quit, the government would still have a 64-seat Knesset majority. The only scenario he could see in which the former chief-of-staff’s departure might threaten the government is if it resulted in mass protests, as were seen over judicial reform.

“Demonstrations are now on a low burner, but if the public decides that Gantz’s withdrawal means Israel is no longer in an emergency situation, and that they can take to the streets, then that could snowball,” he said.

Four hours of marathon meetings on Tuesday between the attorney general’s office, the haredi parties, the prime minister and the justice minister failed to reach a consensus on the government’s plan.

Netanyahu on Tuesday canceled a meeting originally intended to give the draft bill the stamp of government approval.

Haredi parties blamed Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara for the impasse (earlier this week she said she couldn’t defend the bill without substantive changes, including the inclusion of specific recruitment numbers). Ultra-Orthodox sources painted her as hostile to the current government. “No solution is agreeable to her, only elections,” they said.

The United Torah Judaism Party reportedly threatened to pull out of the government if the proposal was altered to include high recruitment targets or significant penalties against those who refuse to serve.

MKs Yitzchak Goldknopf (l.) and Moshe Gafni seen during a meeting of the United Torah Judaism party at the Knesset, Nov. 21, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

However, “It’s very hard to see the haredi parties resigning from the coalition,” said Malach. “Even if the Supreme Court were to tell the government that it needs to conscript haredim immediately, everybody understands that it won’t happen right away.”

“The haredi parties are not going anywhere,” agreed Sharona Zablodovsky, a member of Forum Dvorah, an women’s group comprising experts in foreign affairs and national security. “The haredim have a very strong bond with Netanyahu…. Young haredim—not the political leadership, not the rabbis, but the young haredim—adore him.”

Zablodovsky doesn’t rule out the possibility that Gantz and Gallant are seeking to capitalize on the haredi issue to gain public support, telling JNS that certainly Gantz “in the next elections will be challenging Netanyahu” for the premiership.

Calling for haredi enlistment won’t hurt them politically. It was a popular position before Oct. 7 and has only become more so afterwards, she said. “If Israelis had a belly full before, let’s just say their bellies are even fuller,” she added.

Israelis called up on reserve military duty in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre have been serving for months without a real break, she noted. “They are exhausted. Most of them have families,” she said.

Seventy percent of Jewish Israelis polled by the Israel Democracy Institute between Feb. 28 and March 4 said they wanted changes to the military deferments that haredim enjoy.

Ultra-Orthodox receive near-blanket exemptions from military service in what started as an exemption for about 400 Torah scholars at the state’s establishment. The haredi population since exploded, and deferments were expanded.

While the non-haredi public demands change, IDI’s Malach said he hasn’t seen the same recognition among haredim, whose leadership continues to discourage military service, seeing it as a distraction from Torah study.

“Most of them think that the arrangement in place should continue. At the margins, we see some change. If before, 10% said that we need to do something, now the number is around 20%. It’s mostly modern ultra-Orthodox. People who are not just living within ultra-Orthodox society but have some connection with other Israelis,” he said.

“The main point is that the events of Oct. 7 had a huge effect on the majority population, the secular, moderately religious population. But the feeling is that it didn’t affect at all ultra-Orthodox society or the political leaders of that group,” he added.

Although the number of haredi men studying in yeshivas and eligible for IDF service is estimated at between 63,000 and 66,000, since Oct. 7, only 1,140 haredim have enlisted, of which 600 were over the age of 26.

According to Zablodovsky, the problem is not so much ultra-Orthodox politicians as the rabbinical leadership.

“They decide at the end of the day if haredim go to the IDF or not,” she said. “They are very afraid that if the haredim serve, the sector will fall apart,” as haredi youth will grow estranged from their way of life during their army service, she explained.

To address this, the government’s plan includes the establishment of a separate haredi battalion, that would cater to the group’s religious sensibilities.

As a community, haredim have many positive qualities and would integrate quickly if the rabbis would let them, said Zablodovsky. They are accustomed to study and would pick up military training quickly, “and they know how to help each other. They have this very strong aravut hadadit [sense of mutual responsibility]. It’s in their DNA,” she added.

Despite the current setbacks, and the ongoing debate, Zablodovsky remains optimistic. The horrors of Oct. 7 will have far-reaching effects on Israeli society, she predicted. It will ultimately bring the haredim further into the Israeli fold.

“There will be a compromise, a few hundred maybe to start, but it will be the beginning of a new era of haredi people who will join and serve. I think that Israelis will no longer accept a situation the day after the war where they do not serve. It’s too much,” she said.

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