- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 3, 2012

JERUSALEM (AP) — A fierce debate over how to draft religious men into the Israeli military has sparked the first crisis in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s newly expanded coalition government.

The government is racing to draw up a new draft law ahead of a court-ordered Aug. 1 deadline. The Supreme Court has ruled that the current system, which exempts ultra-Orthodox men from mandatory military service, is illegal.

On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu disbanded a parliamentary committee working on a new draft law because of deep disagreements among its members. Ultra-Orthodox parties oppose any change in the current system.

Mr. Netanyahu‘s decision led his largest coalition partner, Kadima, to threaten to leave the government. Kadima joined the coalition only in May with the goal of reforming the current draft system.

Kadima’s leader, Shaul Mofaz, angrily accused Mr. Netanyahu of breaking agreements that had drawn him into the government.

He said that the disbanded committee, led by a Kadima lawmaker, still would issue its recommendations this week and that if Mr. Netanyahu did not take the “necessary step” of using the report as the basis for a new draft system, “the national unity government will come to an end.”

An Israeli official said that Mr. Netanyahu was working behind the scenes to resolve the standoff. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media, said Mr. Netanyahu planned a series of meetings with coalition partners this week in search of a solution.

He said Mr. Netanyahu remains committed to key principles worked out with Kadima: ensuring that all sectors of Israeli society perform national service, making sure that changes are implemented gradually and maintaining national unity.

The issue of draft exemptions is among the most divisive in Israeli society.

Under a longstanding system, Israel allows ultra-Orthodox males to skip otherwise mandatory military service in order to pursue religious studies. These exemptions, initially reserved for several hundred religious scholars, have ballooned and now apply to tens of thousands of religious men of military age.

The exemptions have bred widespread resentment among Israel’s secular majority, which argues that it is bearing an unfair burden.

The disbanded committee also was looking for ways to get Israel’s Arab minority to do a civilian national service.

Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the military, but the panel aimed to incorporate Arabs into a civilian alternative in its goal to bring about more equality. Two committee members resigned recently after concluding that the panel was backing down on forcing Arabs into national service.

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