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Israeli court overturns ultra-Orthodox military exemption law

February 22, 2012 |  9:24 am

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Israel’s Supreme Court has dropped a political hot potato on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plate by overturning a law that had effectively exempted tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox religious students from mandatory military service.


The decision could force Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government -- which includes leading religious party Shas -- to tackle one of thorniest issues dividing Israel’s religious and secular communities.

The court ruled that the current law must expire by August, and some predict the debate could become so divisive, it might tear apart Netanyahu’s coalition or trigger early elections.

Only a fraction of ultra-Orthodox students join the army. Currently, nearly 70,000 have been exempted under the law, according to military figures.

"The Supreme Court’s decision might be a ticking bomb threatening the coalition’s stability," said Ofer Kenig, political analyst at the Israel Democracy Institute.

But he said the ruling could also provide an opportunity for Netanyahu, who many say may welcome the opportunity to hold elections this year rather than in 2013 to take advantage of his current popularity.

The 6-3 decision found that the so-called Tal law -- passed by the Knesset in 2002 and extended for five years in 2007 -- failed in its intent of encouraging religious students to join the army and instead allowed them to avoid the same three-year military conscription that most secular and non-ultra-Orthodox young people must serve after high school.


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-- Edmund Sanders

 Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at his Jerusalem office on Wednesday. Credit: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images