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Israeli cabinet approves conscription for ultra-Orthodox Jews

A draft law that would make military service compulsory for most of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews has cleared the country's cabinet. Most ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are currently exempt from military service.

The cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the draft bill on Sunday, with 14 cabinet members voting for the legislation and four abstaining.

The bill must still clear the Knesset, the parliament of Israel, but its passage would mean ultra-Orthodox Jewish men would gradually be required to participate in military or civil service by the age of 21. Ultra-Orthodox Jews devote their lives to the study of Judaism and the Torah and are currently largely exempt from military service. If the bill becomes law, 1,800 per year would be exempted from the compulsory service to continue their studies.

"We will make the change gradually, while taking into consideration the special needs of the ultra-Orthodox public," Netanyahu said. The move would come into full effect in four years, if approved by parliament.

Around 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens are ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Proponents of including ultra-Orthodox Jews in the compulsory military service say it upholds social equality. Most Israeli men and women serve for up to three years once they turn 18, but the ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arab citizens and religious women are exempt.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers condemned the draft, but the issue was a contentious one in January elections. The secular Yesh Atid party, a major backer of the legislation, became part of the current government after running in favor of conscription for more ultra-Orthodox Jews.

mz/rc (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)