Opposition party chiefs Lapid, Gabbay trade barbs over military enlistment bill

Opposition party chiefs Lapid, Gabbay trade barbs over military enlistment bill

Zionist Union head says Yesh Atid leader ‘betraying soldiers’ by supporting contentious government-sponsored legislation

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay, left, attending a news conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2017; Yair Lapid attending a conference in Herzliya, June 22, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90; Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)
Labor leader Avi Gabbay, left, attending a news conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2017; Yair Lapid attending a conference in Herzliya, June 22, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90; Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

Legislation addressing ultra-Orthodox military enlistment continued to cause divisions among both the coalition and the opposition Monday, with Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay slamming his Yesh Atid counterpart, Yair Lapid, for supporting the controversial legislation and vowing to help it pass in a Knesset vote later in the day.

Hitting back, Lapid said that Gabbay was “playing political games rather than working for the good of the country.”

Speaking at the opening of his Zionist Union party’s faction meeting in the Knesset, Gabbay said that Yesh Atid was betraying Israeli soldiers and its own voters by supporting the government-sponsored legislation, and claimed it would have no effect on the military draft.

“Not one ultra-Orthodox [seminary student] who would not have been enlisted yesterday will be enlisted tomorrow as a result of this law,” Gabbay charged. “Let’s be honest about that.”

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay leads a faction meeting in Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The contentious legislation is the product of a Defense Ministry committee report published last month. The ministry called the plan “a durable, realistic and relevant arrangement” for ultra-Orthodox conscription. The proposal sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas, or rabbinical seminaries, where they study.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has long been a contentious one in Israel, revolving around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas should be called up for compulsory military service, like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, have threatened to oppose the new legislation if it advances, and even to destabilize the coalition, in order to torpedo the measure.

Claiming that Yesh Atid had “effectively joined the government,” Gabbay lashed out at the party’s decision to support the bill. A vote by Yesh Atid lawmakers in favor of the bill could allow its passage, despite threats from ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition to oppose the legislation. A failure to pass the bill could portend the government’s collapse.

“This is what it looks like when a party has given up. This is what a betrayal of our soldiers and its own voters looks like, and this is what a party that has switched sides looks like,” Gabbay said. “Yesh Atid has stopped believing that we can beat them. Instead, they say, ‘We will join them.’”

Rejecting Gabbay’s assessment that the bill would not change ultra-Orthodox enlistment rates, Lapid said that coalition ultra-Orthodox parties “will vote against the bill because they know it will mean more being enlisted,” adding that the law is supported by the IDF and its chief of staff.

“The role of the opposition is not to oppose good and proper laws for the State of Israel and the people of Israel; the role of the opposition is to offer an alternative. Our job is to offer the country a better direction and values,” Lapid told the Yesh Atid faction meeting.

“A strong, optimistic vision is the way to be an opposition, and whoever wants to lead the country is first and foremost measured by the ability to show national responsibility,” he added.

Leader of the Yesh Atid political party MK Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting in the Knesset, June 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Lapid has argued that the legislation is close to a similar bill his party had suggested in the past. Key differences are that the current bill does not call for criminal sanctions against students who dodge the draft — only economic penalties against the institutions where they study — and also has a lower quota for the number of ultra-Orthodox who will be drafted each year.

The Joint (Arab) List party, which fields 13 opposition MKs, said its lawmakers would not participate in the vote.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, speaking at his own Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting, thanked Lapid for “doing the right thing” by supporting the bill, while taking a swipe at Gabbay.

“I welcome their decision because it shows their real place — between Meretz and the Joint (Arab) List,” he said of the Zionist Union. “They have lost what it means to be a party of statesmen.”

Liberman said that the law “will be a great contribution to the defense establishment and the State of Israel,” stressing that had it not been for his party, the government would have passed a bill permitting vast exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party in the Knesset, June 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

“I want to remind all those present here of another meeting at the end of the last winter session, at which Yisrael Beytenu stood our ground and prevented another law, a bad law,” he said. “We said we would require two things — a law that is accepted by the IDF and that can pass the Supreme Court. This one does both.”

Speaking to Likud MKs and activists Monday, Netanyahu praised the defense minister for “asking the army what they need and creating a law based on that.”

“This is a good and balanced law, he said. “It will increase ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF and their participation in the jobs market.”

In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down a previous law exempting ultra-Orthodox men who were engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermined the principle of equality before the law. However, the court suspended its decision for a year to allow for a new arrangement to be put in place, giving the government the opportunity to pass the new law by September 1, 2018.

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