Amid multiplying spats, Netanyahu urges coalition partners to ‘get a grip’

PM says government members must set aside ‘partisan interests’ and unite around war effort in Gaza, as he faces Haredi anger, public row with Ben Gvir, dissent from Barkat

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video message issued June 19, 2024. (Screenshot/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video message issued June 19, 2024. (Screenshot/GPO)

Facing a growing number of high-profile spats involving members of his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Wednesday for his political partners to “get a grip” and abandon “petty politics.”

Netanyahu’s appeal came after his Likud party engaged in a high-profile quarrel with Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, whom it accused of leaking “state secrets,” and amid intense ultra-Orthodox anger at the premier’s decision to drop his backing for a controversial municipal rabbis appointments bill sought by the Shas party.

Meanwhile, Economy Minister Nir Barkat drove a further wedge by announcing Wednesday he would not back the current form of another contentious bill dealing with the army draft for the Haredi community — the latest among several Likud officials to say the bill must undergo changes that will likely be unacceptable to the ultra-Orthodox.

“We are at war on several fronts, and we face great challenges and difficult decisions,” Netanyahu declared in a video message posted online, referring to the ongoing war against the Palestinian terror group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and clashes with the Hezbollah terror group on the border with Lebanon. “Therefore, I vehemently demand that all coalition partners get a grip and rise to the occasion.”

“This is not the time for petty politics, this is not the time for legislation that endangers the coalition which is fighting for victory over our enemies,” he continued. (The premier himself until Tuesday appeared to be aggressively pushing the bill on municipal rabbinical appointments.)

“We must all focus solely on the tasks before us: defeating Hamas, returning all our hostages and returning our residents safely to their homes, both in the north and in the south. And so I demand of everyone — put aside any other consideration. Put aside any partisan interest. Stand as one, united, behind our troops,” he said.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir leads a faction meeting of the Otzma Yehudit party at the Knesset, June 10, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The Likud party accused Ben Gvir Thursday of leaking “state secrets” after the publication of reports that Netanyahu had offered him sensitive security briefings in exchange for his support of the bill regulating the municipal rabbis. Likud in a statement said the reports of the alleged offer were “full of inaccuracies.”

Ben Gvir attacked the party in turn, suggesting it was Netanyahu who had been leaking information from meetings.

Netanyahu himself pulled the rabbi bill on Tuesday night from the Knesset agenda after coming to realize he did not have the votes to advance it, prompting Haredi parties to issue veiled threats that they could bolt the coalition, removing the government’s parliamentary majority.

Tensions also rose within Likud as Barkat became the second senior member of the ruling party to publicly say he would vote against the ultra-Orthodox enlistment law in its current form, while noting that additional party lawmakers would also oppose it, as several have indicated.

The bill is widely seen as perpetuating blanket exemptions from service for most of the Haredi community. With the IDF facing manpower shortages amid the ongoing military conflicts, the issue has become a political hot potato.

Barkat said he informed Netanyahu that he would oppose the current text of the bill and that he would do so “together with additional Likud MKs.” He said the bill must undergo “fundamental changes” before it is brought for further votes at the Knesset plenum.

He thus joined Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who unlike the other 63 coalition lawmakers already voted against the bill in a vote last week which revived it from the previous Knesset, allowing the legislative process to continue from the stage at which it was abandoned.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat attends a vote on the state budget at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 13, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Several other MKs from Netanyahu’s Likud party have voiced their opposition to the bill, as has another minister.

The bill’s advancement, as the military says it needs thousands of more soldiers as soon as possible due to the burden of the ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, has enraged many secular and religious Zionist Israelis. The ultra-Orthodox community is estimated to include tens of thousands of able-bodied men fit for drafting into the military.

“In order to win the war, the IDF needs more soldiers,” Barkat said in a statement. He said his previous vote in favor of reviving the bill was “technical,” and laid out his conditions for supporting it from now on.

Sharing the letter he also sent to Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair MK Yuli Edelstein and coalition chair MK Ofir Katz, Barkat said the bill must impose mandatory service “for all residents of the state, including the Haredi and Arab communities”; meet the security establishment’s needs; recognize the “importance and value of Torah studies”; have the army adapt service options to the needs of soldiers from the ultra-Orthodox and other communities; and introduce a series of incentives — focusing on combat fighters — and sanctions for draft evasion.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men near a sign reading ‘army recruitment office’ during a protest against the drafting of Haredim to the military, in Jerusalem, May 1, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Barkat, who reportedly plans to challenge Netanyahu as leader of Likud after the war against Hamas ends, said he would support a revised version of the bill that included his demands.

“However, if a proposal is brought to the plenum that is ‘more of the same’… I will oppose the bill,” he wrote.

Likud issued a response quipping that it “expects Nir Barkat to deal with the cost of living and not look for pretexts to topple a right-wing government during wartime.”

The bill, which has already passed a first reading in the Knesset, would lower the current age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi yeshiva students from 26 to 21 and “very slowly” increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a vote on reviving the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Barkat’s move came a day after Edelstein chaired a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to discuss the bill and insisted that despite widespread criticism of the legislation, it provided an opportunity to solve one of the longest-running controversies in Israeli politics.

While he voted for the revival of the bill, Edelstein has also indicated that he would not allow it to pass through his committee in its current form.

At the Knesset meeting, Likud MK Boaz Bismuth declared “I will vote in favor of this bill only if the number of [Haredi] conscripts is significant, and the direction is a conscription law, and not a conscription exemption law. Otherwise, I will vote against it.”

Fellow party member Tally Gotliv has also in the past said she would not back the bill, though like Bismuth, she did vote in favor of reviving the bill last week.

In a joint letter to Netanyahu earlier this month, Likud MKs Dan Illouz and Moshe Saada along with Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli indicated that while they intended to vote for the bill’s revival, they would not support it in its final readings without “significant changes.” While Chikli is not a lawmaker and cannot vote in the plenum, his involvement highlights the significant reservations felt by some in the coalition regarding the proposed law.

Netanyahu’s coalition holds 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and with growing internal Likud opposition, the bill is unlikely to pass further readings.

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Likud MK Yuli Edelstein at a committee meeting on June 18, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset spokesman)

Ultra-Orthodox men of military age have been able to avoid being conscripted to the Israel Defense Forces for decades by enrolling in yeshivas for Torah study and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the age of military exemption. In 2017 the High Court ruled that mass exemptions to military service on a group basis are illegal and discriminatory. Successive governments have since that time tried and failed to formulate new legislation to settle the matter, while requesting repeated deferrals from the court.

The High Court has demanded that a new, egalitarian policy be legislated or else the state immediately start recruiting tens of thousands of yeshiva students, which the ultra-Orthodox parties are vehemently opposed to.

However, justices have shown diminishing patience, and the need to fill the military’s manpower shortfalls has become far more acute since the outbreak of the war in Gaza and the threat of war on the Lebanese border.

The court ruled in March that the state must cease subsidizing Haredi yeshivas whose students are eligible for the draft, since the legal framework for doing so had expired. As a result, Netanyahu has had to deal with a severe political headache owing to the high priority Haredi political parties place on both yeshiva funding and military exemptions.

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