IDF chief: We are in favor of incorporating Haredis into the military

Gaby Ashkenazi voiced his opposition to providing yeshiva students with service exemptions at age 22.

Haaretz, Israel/December 19, 2010

IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi stressed Sunday the importance of incorporating the ultra-Orthodox into the military, following a recommendation to the cabinet to release most of them from mandatory military service in exchange for alternative work in a civilian service.

"In general, we are in favor of incorporating Haredis into the military, and, if possible, in the job market. This is important," stated Gabi Ashkenazi to hundreds of Haredi students at Ono Academic College.

He continued, "Our concern lies with providing the exemption [to army service]. We think that the age for exemption should be 24-25, or younger for individuals with children. Equality is important here. For instance, you have a community of academics that enter army service at age 22-23. Why shouldn't they, too, enjoy an exemption?"

Ashkenazi was speaking in reference to the reform measures introduced by the Finance Ministry regarding the age for exemption of Haredis from military service. The vote on these reform measures was postponed on Sunday.

Ashkenazi stated, "The government knows [the military's] position. It's been made very clear." He vowed to restate the military position in the future.

The IDF chief of staff made his comments at the ultra-Orthodox campus of Ono Academic College to a sympathetic audience of Haredis. He told those assembled that he was a religious believer, and that his maternal grandfather was a rabbi.

Netanyahu's cabinet on Sunday approved two recommendations affecting the ultra-Orthodox community, one of which will release most of them from mandatiory military service in exchange for alternative work in a civilian service.

The second proposal was to accept the recommendations of an interministerial committee to limit to five years the time yeshiva students can receive stipends. In addition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office announced that 50 million additional shekels would be given to aid other students in need in conjunction with the proposals dealing with yeshiva students.

The proposals passed with 14 ministers voting in support, eight voting against, and three abstaining.

To be exempt from military service according to the recommendations, Haredim would have to do a year of alternative service with the police, the Magen David Adom ambulance service, the Fire and Rescue Services or the Prison Service. The arrangement would apply to married students up to age 22 if they have no children, or bachelors over 24.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak supports the arrangement, but sources have told Haaretz that the Israel Defense Forces is not in favor of some of the recommendations, believing that the army should be able to choose the Haredim it needs before they are referred to alternative service.

The IDF is also said to believe that the minimum ages for drafting Haredim into the emergency services are too low because they exempt the ultra-Orthodox from full military service at a very early age.

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was not invited to Sunday morning's cabinet meeting. Brig. Gen. Amir Rogovsky, chief of planning and human resources at the personnel directorate, represented the army. Rogovsky had been invited to address another issue at the meeting, although on Saturday night it appeared that the head of the personnel directorate, Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir, might speak for the IDF on the Haredim.

Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman opposed the five-year cap on stipends to Haredim. "The prime minister is choosing a political compromise over a courageous decision that would bring good tidings to the Haredim and limit the inequality of the burden," he said.

Kadima called on Netanyahu to bring the issue to a vote in the Knesset.

"Netanyahu is once again lying to the public, fleeing responsibility and selling the country's values for the sake of personal survival," Kadima said.

The prime minister apparently prefers to make do with a cabinet decision out of concern that during the legislative process, lawmakers would try to insert objections into a bill or increase the funding to students in academic frameworks beyond what the recommendations call for.

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