Israeli PM dissolves committee to reform draft law

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Associated Press

Posted on July 2, 2012 at 10:02 AM

Updated Monday, Jul 2 at 10:34 PM

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister on Monday dissolved a high-profile committee assigned to reform the country's military draft law to spread the burden among more sectors of society, conscripting ultra-Orthodox Jews and requiring Israeli Arabs to do civilian service.

The issue is one of the most charged in Israeli society and could create a coalition crisis. The country's secular majority considers the mass exemptions unjust, while the ultra-Orthodox claim they are serving the state by serving God.

Compulsory service for Israel's Arab minority is just as fraught.

More than 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt from the compulsory service to pursue religious studies. Israel's Supreme Court recently ruled that system illegal and ordered the government to come up with an alternative by July 31.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was committed to an "equal sharing of the burden," but he said the committee failed to reach a consensus and would not be able to draw up legislation that could win parliamentary approval.

The court-mandated aim was to end sweeping exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews, but Netanyahu has said national service is a burden that must be shared by all, including Israeli Arabs. The committee tackled that issue as well but failed to reach agreement.

Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens. As ethnic Palestinians who enjoy equality with Israeli Jews on paper but have suffered from decades of discrimination and often feel like second-class citizens, most resent being told to serve.

Israeli men are required to serve three years in the military and Israeli women about two years.

In recent days, the committee began to unravel.

First, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's nationalist Israel Beiteinu Party and another smaller coalition faction quit because civilian service for Arabs would not be mandatory. Then the ultra-Orthodox parties' de facto representative dropped out because the pending recommendation would have penalized rabbinical students who refused to serve. Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of the population.

The development could rattle Netanyahu's massive coalition government.

Kadima, the largest party in parliament, cited ensuring universal military service as one of its main justifications for joining the coalition in May and has hinted it would quit if the draft law is not overhauled.

Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz angrily rejected Netanyahu's move. He said the party would "stand by its public commitment."

In contrast, ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni accused Netanyahu of abandoning his community because of "cheap populism."

Reserve soldiers protesting the exemptions also attacked Netanyahu, saying he was caving to pressure.

"I prefer an agreed-upon and gradual solution, but if we cannot reach such a solution by August 1, the military will draft according to its needs," Netanyahu said in a statement, implying that all exemptions would technically expire because of the court order. "I believe that it will do so while taking into consideration the various publics so as to prevent a rift in the nation."

After the state was created in 1948, Israel's founders set a precedent to give military exemptions to 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild great schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust of World War II, when 6 million Jews were killed.

As ultra-Orthodox parties became political power brokers, the numbers of exemptions multiplied along with state support for their institutions. The number has ballooned from 400 to 60,000, and fewer than 1,300 were conscripted in the past year, according to military figures.

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