Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's coalition approved Sunday controversial proposals to exempt Orthodox Jews from military service, officials in his office said.
After a five-hour debate, Barak's cabinet approved a compromise plan by 12 votes to 2 with one abstention ahead of a first vote on the plan in Parliament Monday.
The plan drawn up by a senior judge at the prime minister's behest has fuelled tensions between religious and secular Jews in Israel. It ended up satisfying no one.
Under the judge's proposals, Orthodox students would be granted a reprieve from military call-up until the age of 23. In the next year, they would be able to leave to seek work or undergo professional training.
At the end of that year they can return to their studies, and continue to avoid conscription, but if they want to take up a full time job they will first have to do either military service in special units or some form of civil community service.
At present students are forbidden to leave their colleges until the age of 41, which effectively makes it impossible for them to find a job.
As the cabinet met, a group of reservists from elite units entered the fifth day of a hunger strike charging that the plan was still allowing the Orthodox to get away with not fulfilling their military duties. They were joined by the Movement for Quality Government which fights for equal laws in the country.
Barak called on the hunger strikers to stop their action, an official in his office said.
Over just a few days, some 150,000 people have signed a petition calling for everyone to be treated equally on conscription.
Earlier, four of the members of the coalition -- the National Religious Party, the Centre Party, the secular Meretz and the Russian immigrant Israel B'Alia -- warned, for different reasons, that they will vote against the bill Monday.
The powerful ultra-Orthodox Shas party, for its part, has once again wielded the threat of withdrawing its support from the coalition if the measure does not go through.
The two leading parties, Barak's One Israel and the opposition Likud, have said they are considering allowing their members of parliament a free vote on the question. Israeli radio said that the One Israel ministers may decide not to turn up for the vote.
In an effort to win acceptance for the Tal proposals Barak set up a special commission to improve the rights and prerogatives of conscripts and reservists. The cabinet elected Sports and Science Minister Matan Vilnai of One Israel, a former military general, to head the commission.
Israel's supreme court has ruled illegal the blanket exemption from military service accorded to the Orthodox under an agreement dating back nearly 50 years between the government of the day and the strict Jewish community - OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP)
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