Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has announced it will back a controversial plan to compel ultra-Orthodox Jews and Palestinian-Israelis to complete military or community service.
Meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday before the weekly cabinet meeting, the ruling party said it would support the recommendations proposed by the Plesner committee last week.
“The party this morning discussed and unanimously adopted the principles laid out by the Plesner commission,” Likud spokeswoman Noga Katz said in a statement.
The decision means the government will now move towards drafting a law requiring all sectors of Israeli society to complete either military or community service, with penalties to be levied on those who fail to comply. The Plesner panel also called for increased incentives and benefits for those who serve, as well as efforts to combat draft-dodging.
Right-leaning Likud’s decision to back the recommendations of the commission appeared to head off the possibility of a coalition crisis.
The centrist Kadima party, headed by Shaul Mofaz, which joined the government in May giving Netanyahu a massive parliamentary majority, had threatened to quit the coalition over the issue of military service for all.
But after the Likud party decision, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister and Mofaz had agreed on the formation of a new panel to draft the law.
“Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and vice prime minister Shaul Mofaz are in agreement on the formation of a commission charged with drawing up a law on the equality of service to be presented at the next government meeting,” the statement said.
Thousands of protesters rallied in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to demand an extension of compulsory military or community service to all Israelis, including the minority groups who are currently exempt.
Police estimated that “at least 10,000” took part in the demonstration on Saturday evening, but local media said the number was closer to 20,000.
Carrying placards reading “One people, one draft” the demonstrators packed into a square in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
“We are sick of it,” Idan Miller, one of the protest organisers, said at the rally.
“It can be changed. It must be changed. Mr Prime Minister, get it into your head: we are done being suckers.”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told the AFP news agency the assembly was orderly and no incidents were reported, unlike June 23 social protests during which angry marchers broke bank windows.
Military service is compulsory for most Israelis over the age of 18, with men serving three years and women two.
Under pressure from religious leaders, Netanyahu on Monday had disbanded a panel that drew up reform proposals. The committee was headed by Kadima lawmaker Yochanan Plesner, who released his report despite Netanyahu’s move against the panel.
Plessner’s report seeks to slash exemptions for religious seminary students from a present 50,000 to 1,500 by 2016. It also recommends stiff financial penalties for draft evaders.
It seeks to triple the number of Arab citizens of Israel doing national or military service, from the current 2,400, within five years. Israeli Arabs, who make up about a fifth of Israel’s 7.8 million population, are fiercely opposed to the proposal. The ultra-Orthodox make up about 10 per cent of Israel’s 8 million citizens.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Palestinian-Israelis are excluded under the Tal Law, which passed in 2002, but was ruled unconstitutional in February by Israel’s Supreme Court, ordering that it must become void by August 1.
Ultra-Orthodox political parties oppose conscription for their religious community, while the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman supports a universal draft.
Supporters of sending everybody either into the army or to work in hospitals or perform other forms of community service fear that Mofaz may be prepared to accept a new form of the Tal Law in a compromise with Netanyahu, who wants to avoid alienating supporters in the ultra-Orthodox camp.
Israeli media said that when Mofaz visited Saturday’s demonstration he was booed by protesters and a member of Kadima, former armed forces chief Dan Halutz, announced that he was quitting the party, dismissing attempts to find a substitute for the Tal Law as “games”.