Cracks in the Coalition Over Haredi Conscription?

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Israel’s armed forces are facing unprecedented staffing challenges as the military pursues the war in Gaza, threats of war on the northern front and unrest in the West Bank. Since the Gaza war began on Oct. 7, the IDF has called up a total of 287,000 reservists — the largest call-up in the country’s history.

Although many reservists have been released from duty, there is wide recognition that some of them will be recalled if the war effort continues and if confrontations escalate with Hezbollah in the north and with an unhappy Palestinian population in the West Bank.
In response to the need for increased manpower, the IDF published a plan earlier this month to increase mandatory military service for men from two years and eight months to three years and for women in combat from two to three years. In addition, the retirement age for regular reservists would rise from 40 to 45 and would require more reserve service time each year.

While no one questions the IDF’s need for more personnel, there is disagreement over where that support should come from. Debate on the issue has exposed potential cracks in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, with some coalition members (joined by many in the opposition) calling on Netanyahu to conscript Haredim to the IDF rather than simply extending the service of those already enlisted.

The issue of Haredi service in the military has been a hot-button issue for more than two decades. Repeated Israeli Supreme Court rulings declared the Haredi exemption from military service to be unlawful and directed the Knesset to pass remedial legislation. Those directives were ignored by various Netanyahu-led coalitions (which have consistently included Haredi parties) and led to multiple elections. In addition, the Haredi parties’ insistence on continuing the military exemption for Haredi men has been a factor in several parties refusing to join governing coalitions with them.

Now, a number of voices within the Netanyahu coalition are calling for change. Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli and MKs Dan Illouz and Moshe Saada, all of Netanyahu’s Likud party, have called for the government to “expand the circle of those who carry the burden” of military service. And hard-right, national religious members of the coalition are joining in the suggestion, with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich saying that while “the Haredi public is dear and beloved and contributes much to the State of Israel, it is now necessary that it take a more significant part in the mission of defense and security.”

Even some members of the Haredi Shas party are beginning to embrace the idea of military service for Haredim, with Welfare Minister Yaakov Margi suggesting that Haredi men who aren’t actively involved in the study of Torah should be conscripted and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel asking the IDF to draw up plans for more Haredim to enlist.

In the past, Haredi parties have threatened to topple the government if Haredim were made subject to the requirement of mandatory service. But now, with mounting political and security pressures on Israel, the time may be right to move from a Haredi exemption to some form of mandatory national service for Haredim or anyone else reluctant or unable to serve in a military unit.

The future of Netanyahu’s governing coalition may depend upon achieving such a compromise.

 

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