Coalition partners spar over ultra-Orthodox draft bill

After Liberman says he’ll only support legislation backed by Defense Ministry, religious MK says he will ‘topple the coalition over this law’

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman doubled down Tuesday on his opposition to a proposed bill exempting ultra-Orthodox students from the military draft, prompting a religious lawmaker to say his party will no longer vote for “bizarre laws” if legislation on the matter was not advanced.

“Regarding Haredi enlistment, Yisrael Beytenu’s position is clear and transparent: We will only support legislation put together by the professional team established by the Defense Ministry,” Liberman wrote on Facebook.

His remark came a day after his party threatened to vote against the bill, saying the proposed legislation must be approved by ministers before being brought to the chamber for an initial vote.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, meanwhile, were seeking to expedite the legislation and bring it to the plenum on Wednesday for its preliminary reading. They were leveraging their support for the 2019 state budget — set for its final votes in the coming weeks — on the passage of their bill. The draft bill would still require another three plenary votes before becoming law.

Addressing the other coalition parties, Liberman said political agendas should be put to the side on the issue of conscription.

“I ask you to maintain only one agenda: The IDF and the security of the citizens of the State of Israel,” he said. “As a member of the coalition, Yisrael Beytenu is prepared to compromise and be flexible on many issues, except one — the security of the State of Israel.”

Liberman said any attempt to forward a bill not backed by his party “will encounter firm resistance.”

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (C), Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman at a Knesset plenum session on July 29, 2013.(Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hitting back at Liberman, a United Torah Judaism lawmaker said the party would withhold its support for other pieces of legislation.

“We won’t vote anymore for the bizarre laws that you present,” said MK Moshe Gafni at a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee, which he chairs. He was seated next to Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

It wasn’t clear which laws Gafni was calling “bizarre.”

Gafni said the ultra-Orthodox parties would bring the vote to a plenum reading on Wednesday, despite Yisrael Beytenu’s opposition.

“This is a total crisis, not a mini-crisis,” Gafni later told Israel Radio. “I will topple the coalition over this law.”

The coalition party leaders were set to discuss the new enlistment legislation during their weekly meeting on Sunday, but the issue was not raised as UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman skipped the meeting to attend the funeral of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the influential leader of a fiercely anti-draft offshoot of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodoxy.

The looming showdown between secular Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties could pave the way for a fresh crisis in the government, already destabilized by mounting corruption investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to Hebrew media reports on Friday, the rabbinical council that governs much of the decision-making in United Torah Judaism reportedly instructed its lawmakers to vote against the budget — the passing of which is a high priority of the prime minister and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who want to secure it as early as possible — as long as the army exemption law is not promoted.

Gafni was mum on Tuesday when asked whether UTJ would vote against the budget.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (C), Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni attend the third Shas conference in Jerusalem on February 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men 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 option to pass a new law.

Earlier this month, UTJ and Shas reportedly threatened to bring down the government after Netanyahu told them he would not currently support a new version of the repealed military draft law.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has been a contentious one in Israel, revolving around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas, or seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population. After reaching the age of 18, men must serve for 32 months and women for 24.

Netanyahu is facing possible indictments in two separate corruption scandals, while two additional scandals have entangled several people close to him. His coalition partners have thus far stuck by him, but some analysts have predicted he may be pushed into calling early elections to shore up support as his legal woes pile up.

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