Orthodox get IDF exemption

A series of reforms of yeshivah students' stipends and the announcement of their exemption from army service have become the subject of a coalition disagreement and a rift between the government and the IDF.

The cabinet voted on Sunday 14-8 in favour of a plan formulated by the Prime Minister's Office to continue paying stipends to yeshivah students for another five years, gradually cutting off the payments when they reach the age of 29.

The monthly stipends of 1,040 shekels (£187) for married yeshivah students was the subject of a Supreme Court ruling last year, which stipulated that the payments were discriminatory, since married university students did not benefit from similar stipends.

In addition, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is trying to pass another reform under which yeshivah students, who previously deferred their army service indefinitely as long as they continued to study, will receive a full exemption at the age of 22 and be able to leave yeshivah and begin working if they undertake a year's national service first.

Eyal Gabai, director-general of the Prime Minister's Office who formulated the plans, explained on Sunday that "we are going to gradually wean the Charedi community off benefits and get them into the workforce".

The plans have been criticised from a number of quarters. The National Students' Union has said that the plan to double the fund for needy students while continuing the stipends for yeshivah students is unsatisfactory.

"Only a few students will actually enjoy these payments," said Union president, Itzik Shmuli, "and the majority of students, who study and work, and who served in the IDF and continue to do reserve duty, will get nothing, while the yeshivah students who don't go to the army will continue to benefit." The union is planning a series of demonstrations and a new petition to the Supreme Court against the government's plan.

The main opposition party, Kadima, attacked the plan as "another farce by Netanyahu. The yeshivah students will continue getting their stipends, and who knows what will happen in four years," said a party spokesperson. "Meanwhile, their exemption from IDF service will be enshrined." In the cabinet, the Labour grouping and three ministers of Mr Netanyahu's own party, Likud, voted against the plan.

IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, also voiced reservations about the plan when, in a public appearance on Sunday, he said that "the age of exemption has to be around 24-25. Equality is important".

Lt-Gen Ashkenazi is opposed also the plans to make do with only one year of national service and believes that every Israeli should be made to do either full military service of three years for men and two for women, or an equivalent period of national service.

    Last updated: 1:44pm, December 22 2010