With the impending vote on a universal draft law that would see incrementally larger numbers of ultra-Orthodox citizens inducted into the army, Finance Minister Yair Lapid could be targeted for assassination, a rabbi with ties in the ultra-Orthodox community warned on Wednesday.
“I had a guest over on Shabbat, an important [Torah] scholar, and he told me something astounding that I think had a lot of truth to it,” Rabbi Dov Halbertal told Galei Yisrael Radio. “He told me, ‘Listen, there’s going to be a new Rabin assassination; Lapid will be killed by a Haredi.'”
Police later questioned him for his remarks.
Halbertal, a lawyer by profession who lectures at Haifa University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has strong connections with the Haredi leadership and was considered an associate of the late rabbinic authority Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.
“Lapid’s murder will be next in line to the Rabin assassination,” he emphasized.
Lapid, in a Facebook post on Wednesday evening, dismissed the threats, saying he wasn’t among those “startled” by the Halbertal’s statement.
“Many people were startled today by the reports that there are Haredim who are threatening to murder me. I am not one of them… Because I know the Haredim are not like that,” he said.
“I have a deep disagreement with the Haredim regarding the question of military service and going to work (which will soon be resolved),” he continued, “but it is an argument between brothers and friends. The majority of the Haredi public is not violent, does not want a [social] divide, is not interested in a rift between us. Today of all days, when tempers are flaring, we must reach out to them and embrace them.”
The interview drew harsh criticism from Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet security service who was elected to the Knesset on Lapid’s Yesh Atid list. Peri appealed Wednesday afternoon to Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen to take action against Halbertal’s unnamed Shabbat guest.
“Murder threats like this one create a dangerous dynamic,” such as that which prevailed immediately prior to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination. “Law enforcement must treat the issue immediately before there are victims,” he said.
The statements harked back to “the eve of Rabin’s murder,” he cautioned, stressing that death threats would not deter efforts to advance the enlistment law.
Haredi MK Moshe Gafni also castigated Halbertal for his assertions, saying they were “severe, unnecessary, unjustified, illogical, and caused an unparalleled desecration of God’s name and defamation of the entire Haredi community,” according to the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar HaShabbat.
In light of Halbertal’s remarks, Israel Police Chief Yohanan Danino announced an immediate investigation and said police would weigh tightening security around Lapid.
Halbertal was called in for questioning on Thursday. “My intention was to warn, but I don’t plan on revealing any names,” he told Walla while en route to the station.
Tension over the initiative to minimize the number of exemptions from the draft given to ultra-Orthodox men has risen of late, with the bill moving forward in the Knesset.
On Monday, in an apparent response to the approval by a Knesset committee of a new conscription bill that would impose criminal penalties on noncompliant yeshiva students on February 19, a picture of Lapid and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who has also been promoting the bill, in SS uniforms went viral on Facebook. In the photo, the two ministers are shown outside of the Auschwitz gates burning Torah scrolls.
While it remains unclear where the photo originated, Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy referred to it as “wild incitement that repeats itself.”
Under the newly approved conscription bill drafted by the committee — named for its chairwoman, MK Ayelet Shaked — Haredi men between the ages of 18 and 24 would be able to claim draft exemptions from national service, one year at a time. Draft quotas would be determined by the number of eligible ultra-Orthodox men under the age of 24. A three-year transition period will begin once the Knesset approves the bill. During those three years, a target will be set for the number of ultra-Orthodox enlistees each year. The target number will rise each year until 2017, when it will reach 5,200 new Haredi enlistees.
Haredi MKs, as well as President Shimon Peres, have publicly opposed the criminal sanctions provision of the bill. Last week, Hiddush, an Israeli NGO backing Haredi enlistment, called on the Shaked Committee to vote against the criminal sanctions, calling the idea an unrealistic proposal intended for political gain.
Earlier this month, Lapid halted state payments to religious seminaries which house draft dodgers. This, along with the arrest of an ultra-Orthodox man who refused to enlist, sparked widespread protests throughout the country by thousands of Haredi demonstrators.
Haredi leaders met Monday to discuss how to proceed with opposition against the bill, but no immediate protest measures have been taken.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.