By Maayan Lubell
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Thousands of Israelis marched through Tel Aviv on Saturday to demand an end to the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from compulsory military service, an issue that has put huge strain on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.
"We are sick of it," Idan Miller, one of the protest organizers said at the rally. "It can be changed. It must be changed. Mr. Prime Minister, get it into your head: we are done being suckers."
Police said about 10,000 people took part in the protest, but local media put the number at 20,000. The marchers held up signs that read "Equal service for all" and chanted "One people, one draft".
"Many of the people here are former soldiers of mine. They are unfairly carrying most the burden," Moshe Kaplinsky, a former Israeli general, told Channel 2 News.
"We are calling on the government to get it together, to stop playing games and make the right decisions," he said.
Military service is a highly emotive issue for Israelis, most of whom start a two to three-year service at the age of 18. Many are also called up for reserve duty. Ultra-Orthodox men are exempt to allow them to pursue religious studies.
In February Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the law which allowed the exemptions was unconstitutional. It gave the government an August 1 deadline to come up with a revised law, sparking a major dispute in Netanyahu's coalition.
Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, head of Netanyahu's largest coalition partner, Kadima, has threatened to quit the government unless it puts an end to the blanket exemptions.
PM UNDER PRESSURE
But Netanyahu, who has cautiously supported the reform, is also under attack from other coalition partners, ultra-Orthodox parties who have threatened to walk out if their followers are to be forced into military service.
Under pressure from religious leaders, Netanyahu on Monday disbanded a panel that drew up reform proposals. The committee was headed by Kadima lawmaker Yochanan Plessner, who released his report despite Netanyahu's move against the panel.
Plessner's report seeks to slash exemptions for religious seminary students from a present 50,000 to 1,500 by 2016. It recommends stiff financial penalties for draft evaders.
It also seeks to triple the number of Arab citizens of Israel doing national or military service, from the current 2,400, within five years. Israeli Arabs, who make up about a fifth of Israel's 7.8 million population, are fiercely opposed to the proposal.
Most commentators in Israel did not see Netanyahu's government under any immediate threat of dissolution and hours before the Tel Aviv protest the prime minister appeared to backtrack on the Plessner report.
A spokesman for Netanyahu's Likud party said in a statement that the leader would convene his faction on Sunday to discuss the report, and if Likud lawmakers approve it, Netanyahu and Mofaz would start drafting up a new bill in the coming week.
Boaz Nol, one of the protest organizers, voiced little confidence in Netanyahu's latest move. "It is a once-in-a-decades opportunity and the prime minister is wasting it away."
(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Pravin Char)