Israel’s Order to Draft Ultra-Orthodox Faces Political Maelstrom

(Bloomberg) -- Israel is facing a legal and political struggle over how many Ultra-Orthodox men should be drafted into the military and how quickly, the result of an historic Supreme Court ruling.

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Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara said the army should take on 3,000 Ultra-Orthodox recruits as soon as July 1st following the landmark decision on Tuesday, while laying out plans to recruit larger numbers in years to come. She also said the government must withhold funds previously allocated to religious seminaries whose students have been able to avoid the draft.

The court order to stop allowing the Ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, to skip Israel’s system of mandatory military service is unpopular with the group yet has strong broader support. The exemption has stood since the early days of the state, and many Israelis say the burden of supplying forces to fight the ongoing war with Hamas and counter the threat from Hezbollah in Lebanon should be spread equally across society.

The decision has implications for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition government, which relies on two religious parties to function as a majority.

There are 1,800 Haredi soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces already. The court said about 63,000 are available, and the country must act quickly to enforce the new ruling given Israel is at war.

Yet Yuli Edelstein, a legislator in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party who runs the committee where the conscription law will be debated, said he won’t push through any bill that doesn’t have broad support — meaning from the opposition as well as the coalition.

Political Fallout

Netanyahu and his religious partners want to minimize the numbers and pace of recruitment to limit the political fallout. Moshe Maya, the spiritual leader of Shas, one of the two Haredi parties in the coalition, urged resistance to conscription, saying, “Anyone who joins the army today will become a sinner tomorrow.”

But many of Netanyahu’s fellow conservatives believe it’s vital for Haredim, who now number almost 14% of Israel’s 10 million population, to be integrated into the army especially as defense needs are growing. And rivals to Netanyahu, including within Likud, smell an opportunity to push for early elections.

In theory, the religious parties could leave the coalition and seek a better deal with other parties. Yet it seems more likely they will seek to minimize the ruling’s impact through internal negotiations.

Front Pages

The front pages of Israel’s two biggest newspapers, which lean center-right, carried ads on Wednesday with words such as “Historic Day! One Nation-One Army. Let the Army Win!”

Haredi papers, by contrast, reported on the ruling as a tragedy, with at least one framing its article with black lines, mimicking a death announcement.

One of their biggest concerns is that subsidies for yeshiva — where students go for religious study — will now be cut off, and some Haredi leaders called for donations.

One top rabbi wrote in a Haredi newspaper on Wednesday, “Dear brothers, Help! The courts, haters of Torah students, have cut the budget of Torah and yeshivas with rage and malice.”

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