Netanyahu moves to end religious military exemptions (REUTERS) By Jeffrey Heller JERSALEM, ISRAEL 07/08/12 11:18am EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - 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
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.
Political commentators said Netanyahu´s perceived siding with ultra-
Orthodox parties - traditional partners in Israel´s ruling
coalitions - was a rare misjudgment of the national mood by a popular
leader who now heads one of the biggest governments in the country´s
The countdown to what Netanyahu on Sunday called "historic change"
started in February, when the Supreme Court struck down the
conscription law that allowed the exemptions, effectively giving
parliament until August 1 to pass a new one.
"It is a once-in-a-decades opportunity and the prime minister is
wasting it away," Boaz Nol, one of the organizers of the Tel Aviv
march, said on Saturday.
The theme of the protest, spearheaded by military reservists who set
up a tent city outside a Tel Aviv train station, was that Israelis
were tired of being suckers and serving in the military while
religious seminary students did not.
Israel´s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, approved a policy of
exempting what was then a small group of 400 ultra-Orthodox seminary
students. The original handful has grown to about 60,000 men largely
supported by state stipends.
Defending the exemptions, religious leaders say Bible studies
strengthen Jewish traditions and the Jewish state.
The Plesner panel recommended slashing exemptions for seminary
students from a present 50,000 to 1,500 by 2016. It also proposed
stiff financial penalties for draft evaders.
At the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said he and Mofaz
had agreed on a team, which would include Plesner, to finalize the
details of the "equal burden law". He said the proposed legislation
would be presented for cabinet approval next week. (Editing by Pravin
Char) (© Thomson Reuters 2012. 07/08/12)
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