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.
Chaos erupted in the Knesset as several members charged and tried to attack Arab member Hanin Zoabi for referring to the IDF soldiers as murdererss
According to Israeli media, about 40 Palestinians are alleged to have joined the notorious terror group
The PYD, the Syrian arm of the PKK armed group, captured Tal Abyad from ISIL last year
Cairo court calls for retrial of 494 people arrested in wake of 2013 military coup
- Approval comes despite objections by security cabinet’s most right-wing members
Egypt has kept the border with Gaza mostly sealed since Morsi's ouster
Turkish armed forces and U.S.-led coalition strike more ISIL positions in northern Syria on Tuesday, military says
The Revolutionary Guard is an elite force separate from the regular army, and is charged with defending the Islamic Republic.
Syrian rebel fighters began an operation on Tuesday to capture a town held by ISIL at the Iraqi border
Non-governmental groups have written to UN chief Ban Ki-Moon saying that peace talks meant little when there was a increasing death toll in Syria
Egyptian investigators confirmed the aircraft had made a 90-degree left turn followed by a 360-degree turn to the right before hitting the sea.
Clashes between Kurdish rebels and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards killed over a dozen near the Iraqi border.
Move comes one day after village near border with Syria is rocked by spate of suicide bombings
35 ISIL targets struck in northern Syria, say Turkish security officials
Suicide bombers posing as Iftar distributors kill at least 38 Yemeni soldiers and injure 24 in Yemen's southeast.