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Knesset Rejects Proposals to Draft Fervently Orthodox

The Knesset has defeated two bills aimed at imposing a military draft on fervently Orthodox yeshiva students.

Military deferments for yeshiva students have become a highly charged issue in the deepening rift between Israel’s secular and observant populations.

The deferments were first granted in the early 1950s under the government of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. At the time, it applied to some 500 yeshiva students. There are now some 28,000 men between the ages of 18 and 41 who have been granted exemptions after claiming that their only occupation is yeshiva studies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition depends on the support of the religious parties, had opposed the bills, one of which was submitted by opposition leader Ehud Barak.

The bills were defeated as a result of a rare alliance involving the Likud, religious parties and Arab parties.

Arab legislators voted against the bills in exchange for a promise from the religious parties to oppose any future initiative to impose any form of national service on Israel’s Arab population.

Barak’s bill was defeated by a 53-45 vote. A similar bill introduced by the secularist Meretz Party was voted down by 53-41.

One member of the Cabinet, Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, gave his support to Barak’s bill.

Wednesday’s Knesset session turned into a confrontation between Barak and his former subordinate when he was army chief of staff, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

Barak claimed there was no justification for the fact that behind every soldier who “can look at the enemy directly in the eyes,” there would be 10 Israeli youths who would stay at home.

Mordechai, who spoke for the government, retorted that Barak’s motives for introducing the bill were political.

He added that there was no guarantee that a draft of yeshiva students would improve Israel’s security situation and that the move would only deepen rifts in Israeli society.

The fervently Orthodox parties expressed anger at Barak for introducing his bill, saying the move would prevent them for supporting him in any run for the premiership.

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