Military exemptions threaten Israeli coalition

May 27, 2013, 11:33 AM EDT
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (AP) — The leader of Israel's second largest party warned Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition could collapse if it fails to reform the military draft system and end exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid made the threat after a committee meeting tasked with changing the draft rules ended without results. Lapid's party surged in January's parliamentary election by vowing to force the ultra-Orthodox to "share the burden" of military service.

Military service is compulsory in Israel from age 18, but thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews get exemptions each year to pursue religious studies. The ultra-Orthodox insist military service would compromise their strict religious lifestyle, while Israelis who serve in the military charge that the system is unfair.

"Whoever thinks that Yesh Atid will fold on the issue of sharing the burden simply doesn't know us or understand us," Lapid said at a meeting of his party. "There will be an equal sharing of the burden, or this government will fall apart," he said.

His comments appeared to be an opening salvo in what will likely be a lengthy debate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said there will be many "headlines and crises" until all the issues are ironed out. But he said that in the end, solutions will be found and the law will be passed.

In the early days of the Jewish state a small core of a few hundred ultra-Orthodox Jewish scholars were granted draft exemptions, partially in order to encourage scholarship after the great European schools of Jewish thought were destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.

Over the years the numbers of exemptions mushroomed into tens of thousands, and the legitimacy of the scholarly pursuits of so many young people came into question.

A committee tasked with composing draft reforms met late into the night Sunday but ended in acrimony over disputes about penalties for draft evaders and other clauses.

Under the new proposed system, seminary students would be allowed to continue their studies and would not be required to perform military service until age 21. That could signal a relatively easy term of service, since older soldiers typically serve for shorter periods of time and usually not in combat units.

The system under consideration would not go into effect for three years, meaning that thousands of seminary students who are studying now would not have to serve.