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Israel plans controversial end to draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox
Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday gave defense officials one month to craft a plan requiring ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to participate in military service, in an issue that has divided the country for decades.
AP - Israel's defense minister instructed the military on Tuesday to start drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men as it does other Israelis, setting up a potential clash over an issue that has divided the country for decades.
Ehud Barak gave defense officials a month to craft a plan to put it into practice, trying to buy time in a last-ditch effort to find an agreed solution. His order came just hours before the expiration of a law that has granted tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews exemptions from military duty and followed a Supreme Court ruling against extending that arrangement.
Some ultra-Orthodox activists vowed immediately after the decision that members of their community would go to jail rather than cut short their religious studies to serve, while others sounded skeptical that Barak would enforce the law. Defense officials say privately that the military is not prepared to immediately absorb tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men.
Barak's decree fills a legal vacuum on the status of the draft. The existing law exempting tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men from serving was due to expire at midnight. Israel's Supreme Court overturned that legislation in February, but it remained in effect as the government struggled to come up with a new formula on an issue that has generated tremendous resentment among Israel's secular majority and modern Orthodox who do serve the compulsory three years.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been unable to bridge the differences between his secular and ultra-religious coalition partners.
The political impasse, which shows no sign of approaching resolution, was on the verge of bringing down Netanyahu's government just three months ago.
Earlier this month, the issue cost him his largest coalition partner, the centrist Kadima party. In the meantime, parliament has gone into recess until mid-October, putting efforts to formulate a new conscription law in limbo.
Yerach Toker, an aide to ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni, expressed confidence that Barak would take the ultra-Orthodox community's needs into consideration, saying he had been sensitive to its concerns in the past.
"We hope he will act wisely,'' Toker said. Shmuel Poppenheim, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish activist, said draft-age men would go to jail en masse to avoid serving in the military.
"If they come in trucks to arrest an entire seminary, no problem,'' Poppenheim said. ``If there is no flexibility on (Barak's) side, religious elders will sit together and declare war.''
Political commentator Hanan Crystal thought Barak's move, if even partially implemented, could help Netanyahu should the draft deadlock force him to dissolve his government and call early elections.
"Netanyahu lost ground with the public over the draft issue,'' Crystal told Israel Radio. "Netanyahu hopes Barak will be able to raise the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts so it will be bigger come elections.''
The draft privileges date back to the 1940s, when Israel's founders exempted 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild great schools of Jewish learning destroyed during the Holocaust.
As the burgeoning ultra-Orthodox community emerged as kingmakers in Israelis politics, the numbers of exemptions swelled, to the point that 60,000 ultra-Orthodox men of military age do not serve today. Only 1,300 ultra-Orthodox agreed to be drafted this year.