Bill to defer Orthodox from military spurs outcry

JERUSALEM — One of Israeli society's most painful rifts — the religious-secular divide — resurfaced last week as the Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill on drafting fervently religious yeshiva students.

The bill would allow the students to be exempt from military service until age 23, when they would decide whether to continue their studies or join the military for a shortened tour of service.

The bill spurred a public outcry from those who demand that the burden of Israel's mandatory military service be equally shared by all.

Fervently religious leaders in turn maintained that Torah study is at least as important to preserving the Jewish state as military service.

Outside the Knesset on Monday of last week, some army veterans launched a hunger strike, demanding that the yeshiva students not be given any special dispensations.

In a last appeal following hours of heated Knesset debate, Prime Minister Ehud Barak urged left-wing legislators not to let their opposition to the bill jeopardize the "real struggle" — pursuing the peace process.

Barak declared the vote a motion of confidence in his government.

The bill passed, 52-43, with seven abstentions. It was sent to parliamentary committee, which will ready it for second and third votes.

Opposition leader Ariel Sharon voted against the bill — a move some commentators suggested might come back to haunt him if he tries to reach alliances with the fervently religious parties.

It was not immediately clear what political costs Barak incurred in the vote and whether the promises he made would offset them.

Before he was elected, Barak had opposed draft exemptions for the students. Last week, when he tried to explain why he had changed his position, he said the bill was the "best compromise'' under current circumstances.

The bill was drawn up after a government commission, led by former Supreme Court Justice Zvi Tal, issued proposals regarding the yeshiva students' draft exemptions.

The Tal Commission was formed in the wake of a 1998 ruling by the High Court of Justice that canceled a decades-old arrangement under which the students are entitled to the exemptions.

The justices said at the time that the arrangement had created a growing sense of inequality in Israeli society.