legal limbo

Netanyahu scrambling for solutions as Haredi IDF exemption law expires

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara told the government on Sunday that the court’s ruling required it to act immediately

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Female soldiers walk past a group of Haredi boys and men during a protest against the expiration of a law preventing them from being drafted into the IDF by blocking the main road in and out of the city on March 18, 2024 in Jerusalem.

The expiration of a measure exempting Israel’s Haredi population from military service left Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government scrambling to resolve the situation before the IDF starts conscripting full-time yeshiva students, which could trigger an early election.

The government is currently in legal limbo when it comes to Haredim and the IDF. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara told the government on Sunday that the court’s ruling required it to act immediately upon the law’s expiration on Monday. At the same time, the High Court of Justice, while not allowing the extension of the exemption law, gave the government another 30 days to report back with a proposed bill to resolve the problem.

The practical implications of the law’s expiration may not be felt before those 30 days are up. The law granted Haredi full-time yeshiva students deferrals from service until age 26, which they had to renew regularly while proving they still attended a yeshiva; after age 26 they are exempt. The court also stopped the repeated deferrals of the implementation of a 2014 law instituting economic sanctions for yeshivas whose students do not enlist. In line with Baharav-Miara’s order, the IDF was expected to begin sending conscription letters to Haredi men under age 26 whose deferrals expired as of April 1. If those men do not report to the enlistment office, the government grants to yeshivas for April, set to be paid on May 1, will be slashed – unless the government comes up with a solution before that.

Netanyahu expressed confidence that he would clear that hurdle to the High Court’s satisfaction, noting that he had been working with coalition partners on the issue for three months before the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

“We started working and made significant progress… The Haredim went a long way. They agreed to things we didn’t expect, that they had never agreed to,” Netanyahu said in a press conference on Sunday, hours before he underwent a successful hernia surgery.

According to Netanyahu, negotiations with Shas and United Torah Judaism in recent days took place “in good spirits and [with] a real desire to reach an agreement and not a confrontation in the middle of the war, when we are a step away from victory. I think we can solve the problem.” 

Asked if he believes that all Israelis should serve, Netanyahu said: “I think that we need to act to promote equality, but I think there is a way to do it. We can try to hammer it in, as we did in the past, but it didn’t work…it didn’t lead Haredim to enlist… We need to advance equality in the spirit – not of total agreement, but with broad agreement.” 

Still, there are growing murmurs in the Israeli Haredi media – which is mostly party-affiliated media approved by committees of rabbis before publication – that Netanyahu’s government has led them astray.

One disappointment referred to repeatedly, including in a question to Netanyahu in the press conference, is that the coalition did not pass “Basic Law: Torah Study,” a law with constitutional heft that would make studying Torah a contribution to the state that is legally equal to military service. The Haredi parties hoped that such a law would stop the High Court from canceling the exemption from enlistment in the IDF, but Justice Minister Yariv Levin and others in the coalition argued that it would be better to vote in judicial reform first – the reform that was mostly postponed first due to mass protests and later indefinitely due to the war in Gaza.

Yossi Elituv, editor of Mishpacha Magazine, posted last week that “no politician in Likud brought disaster to the right-wing bloc like the wise guy Yariv Levin. A stone thrown into a well by one fool, even a thousand wise men cannot pull out.”

A Likud source told Jewish Insider that Netanyahu will “find a new pipeline to pay the yeshivas, until they pass a law,” and continue the “ping-pong game” between the High Court and Knesset on the matter of Haredi exemptions from IDF service. Yet Baharav-Miara’s order to the government on Sunday tried to close any lacunae to that effect.

On the other side of the coalition, war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz and his National Union party, as well as Likud moderates, say they will not support a law continuing the practice of widespread IDF conscription exemptions for Haredim. That the opposition extends from Likud’s backbenches to its ministers – including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli and others –  means that Netanyahu does not even have the option of giving up on his wartime emergency government to maintain his pre-war 64-seat coalition.

Netanyahu now has the task of quelling the divergent frustrations on both sides to keep his government together.

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