Israeli gov't gets new May 16 deadline in ultra-Orthodox conscription feud

FILE PHOTO: Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured another reprieve in a long-running Israeli dispute over exemptions of ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service, with the Supreme Court on Thursday deferring the deadline for a new conscription plan to May 16.

The court, hearing appeals that described the decades-old waiver as discriminatory, had given March 31 as the original deadline. That was extended to April 30 at the request of the government, which argued it was busy waging the Gaza war, and which last week asked for a further deferral.

Netanyahu's coalition includes two ultra-Orthodox parties that regard the exemptions as key to keeping their constituents in religious seminaries and away from a melting-pot military that might test their conservative values.

The latest extension is shorter than that requested by the government, but may still spare Netanyahu a public reckoning over the combustible issue ahead of Israel's day of commemoration for fallen soldiers on May 13, and Independence Day on May 14.

Both national holidays are expected to be especially fraught this year, amid an open-ended war in Gaza and knock-on fighting on other fronts that have exacted the worst Israeli casualties - mostly among teenaged draftees and reservists - in decades.

The ultra-Orthodox make up 13% of Israel's 10 million population, a figure expected to reach 19% by 2035 due to their high birth rates. Economists argue that the conscription waiver keeps some of the community unnecessarily out of the workforce, spelling a growing welfare burden for middle-class taxpayers.

Israel's 21% Arab minority are also mostly exempted from the draft, under which men and women are generally called up at age 18, with men serving‮32 ‬ months and women 24 months.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Ros Russell)