World Bulletin/News Desk
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the go-ahead on Sunday to reforms that would end the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from compulsory military service, in an about-face hours after 20,000 Israelis marched for change.
Military service is a highly emotive issue for Israelis, most of whom start a two or three-year service at the age of 18. Many are also called up for reserve duty. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are exempt to allow them to pursue religious studies.
"Everyone must bear the burden. We will provide positive incentives to those who serve and negative incentives to draft dodgers," Netanyahu told a meeting of lawmakers from his right-wing Likud party.
At his urging, the Likud legislators ratified the recommendations of a government-appointed panel formulating a new military conscription law that would cancel exemptions for most Jewish seminary students.
The issue has put huge strain on Netanyahu's ruling coalition. Only last Monday and under pressure from religious leaders, the prime minister dismissed the panel, headed by Yohanan Plesner, a member of the centrist Kadima party that is the biggest partner in the coalition.
The committee went ahead and issued its report two days later, in defiance of Netanyahu and with the support of Kadima leader and Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz, who issued veiled threats to quit the government only two months after joining it.
About 20,000 people marched in Tel Aviv on Saturday night calling for an "equal sharing of the national burden" and demanding Netanyahu change course and back the committee's proposals.
Political commentators said Netanyahu's perceived siding with ultra-Orthodox parties - traditional partners in Israel's ruling coalitions - was a rare misjudgment of the national mood by a popular leader who now heads one of the biggest governments in the country's history.
The countdown to what Netanyahu on Sunday called "historic change" started in February, when the Supreme Court struck down the conscription law that allowed the exemptions, effectively giving parliament until August 1 to pass a new one.
"It is a once-in-a-decades opportunity and the prime minister is wasting it away," Boaz Nol, one of the organisers of the Tel Aviv march, said on Saturday.
The theme of the protest, spearheaded by military reservists who set up a tent city outside a Tel Aviv train station, was that Israelis were tired of being suckers and serving in the military while religious seminary students did not.
Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, approved a policy of exempting what was then a small group of 400 ultra-Orthodox seminary students. The original handful has grown to about 60,000 men largely supported by state stipends.
Defending the exemptions, religious leaders say Bible studies strengthen Jewish traditions and the Jewish state.
The Plesner panel recommended slashing exemptions for seminary students from a present 50,000 to 1,500 by 2016. It also proposed stiff financial penalties for draft evaders.
At the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said he and Mofaz had agreed on a team, which would include Plesner, to finalise the details of the "equal burden law". He said the proposed legislation would be presented for cabinet approval next week.
Five people are killed when Russian warplanes strike targets in opposition-held area of Syria's northwestern Idlib province
At least 180,879 civilians have been killed by the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria since March 2011, Syrian Network for Human Rights says
Saudi Arabia has long been deeply suspicious of Hezbollah, a close ally of its regional rival Iran
Thousands of Turkmen reportedly displaced by ongoing assaults by regime and Russian warplanes in Syria's predominantly-Turkmen Bayirbucak region
A dozen people killed in separate bombings and shooting attacks across war-torn Iraq, local sources report
'Next week, I expect to provide my final assessment on all past and present outstanding issues,' International Atomic Energy Agency head Yukiya Amano says
Syrian Network for Human Rights says 20,000 women have been killed in the Syrian conflict, wıth almost 95 percent of them by Assad regime
Regime offensive comes one day after Turkmen fighters retook control of Kizildag town
Russian planes have carried out at least 12 strikes in the area where Turkey downed their fighter jet
The second pilot who ejected from the fighter jet shot by Turkish forces has been picked up by the Syrian army
Sources report that first pilot was killed by opposition forces who shot at him as he landed after ejecting from the plane
Turkish reports say incident happened in border area between Turkey's southern Hatay province and an area in northwest Syria populated by the Turkic-speaking Turkmen minority
Twin attacks target hotel housing judges tasked with overseeing Egypt’s parliamentary polls
Turkey has condemned the ruthless attacks by Russia and have sent a letter to the UN expressing grave concern about attacks in Bayirbucak Turkmen area in northwestern Syria
Iran calls for international investment as it seeks a greater share of the world's gas market
Russia and Iran have 'unity of views' on Syria, a spokesman for Kremlin says after President Putin held talks in Tehran with supreme leader Khamenei