Israeli official vows to end draft exemptions
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's new hawkish bloc will do away with a contentious system of draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men if it forms the next government, Israel's deputy foreign minister pledged Wednesday.
If the vow is implemented, it would put the recently formed bloc on a potential collision course with its likely religious coalition partners.
The issue of the draft exemptions has become a major source of friction in Israel, and the outgoing government failed to meet a Supreme Court order to abolish the system. Heading into elections in January, the issue is now caught in legal limbo.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a member of the secular Yisrael Beitenu Party, said the government failed to find a new formula thus far for the draft because of objections by the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. Both Shas and Yisrael Beitenu are key members in the current Israeli government.
This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party agreed to join forces with Yisrael Beitenu and run as a joint list in the upcoming election. The alliance is expected to be the biggest single bloc in parliament and dominate the next coalition government.
Ayalon said the partnership with Likud has changed the rules of the game and that if Shas wanted to be part of the next government, it would have to agree ahead of time to universal drafting and electoral reform in Israel.
Otherwise, "they won't be part of the government," Ayalon told The Associated Press.
In a country where military service is compulsory for all Jewish males except the ultra-Orthodox, the draft exemptions have created widespread resentment toward the religious.
Shas and Israel's religious leaders resist any change to the draft system, which allows most ultra-Orthodox men to skip military service in favor of study in their insulated seminaries.
Polls show the teamed-up Likud-Yisrael Beitenu ticket to be far ahead of any other party in the countdown to the elections. But the bloc will still need to form a coalition with other parties to gain a majority in the 120-seat parliament. Ultra-Orthodox parties like Shas have traditionally aligned with Likud.
Despite Ayalon's remarks Wednesday, Yisrael Beitenu and Shas have sat together in the current government for nearly four years. Many analysts expect the two will find ways to bridge their differences in the next government as well.
Ayalon said the new Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc would have a better bargaining position over the draft exemptions issue.
"I think we will have a better weight and we will also have choices," he said in a veiled threat. "I don't want to preempt. We'll see."
He spoke after meeting in Jerusalem with Anglo supporters, most of whom oppose the exemptions.
Religious parties, which often serve as kingmakers in Israeli politics, have used their political muscle over the years to guarantee the draft exemptions.
But earlier this year, Israel's Supreme Court ordered the exemptions stopped and that alternative legislation be drafted. A parliamentary committee formed to develop a new draft system was disbanded.
Secular Israelis see the draft controversy as part of a bigger conflict over the character of the country. They have also expressed alarm over ultra-Orthodox efforts to segregate the sexes in public, their heavy reliance on welfare handouts, and a school system that teaches religious studies but few skills for the work world.
New elections are scheduled for Jan. 22, and the issues of the draft and religious coercion are sure to be debated in the campaign.