ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Opposition MK joins small cadre calling for unity government

Coalition whip: We’ll pass IDF draft law next, then continue with judicial overhaul

Likud MK Ofir Katz says issue of Haredi enlistment needs to be ‘settled’ as reports emerge of ultra-Orthodox parties pushing for pause on shakeup of judiciary

MK Ofir Katz, chairman of the Knesset House Committee, leads a hearing, March 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Ofir Katz, chairman of the Knesset House Committee, leads a hearing, March 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition whip Ofir Katz said Thursday that the government plans to pass an IDF draft law intended to settle Haredi exemptions in the next Knesset session, before it resumes legislating the rest of the coalition’s judicial overhaul.

“The IDF draft law will pass in the next Knesset session” before the overhaul continues, the Likud MK was quoted as saying by Channel 12 news.

Katz added that it was clear the issue of Haredi enlistment in the IDF, which has been debated for decades, needed to be sorted out once and for all.

“It’s not like the IDF has been drafting all Haredim until now, and now Likud is coming to overturn that. The current situation is that this issue needs to be settled,” he said.

Haredi parties have demanded the coalition move ahead with legislation awarding blanket exemptions from military service to yeshiva students — eliciting outrage from government opponents — while also finding a mechanism to protect such legislation from being overturned by the High Court of Justice over equality concerns.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said a previously planned override bill —  that would enable the parliament to pass legislation immune to being struck down by the court — was off the table.

Meanwhile on Thursday, National Unity party MK Matan Kahana joined a small cadre in the opposition calling for a unity government, suggesting that the sides reach an agreement for Netanyahu to serve for two more years and then resign ahead of an early election.

Referring to his proposal as the “Kahana plan to save the State of Israel from crisis,” the MK said it would see National Unity and Yesh Atid join the Likud-led government along with “anyone else who accept values in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.” Two years from now, Netanyahu would “retire to his home in dignity” and an election would be held.

Kahana made no reference to the ongoing corruption trial Netanyahu is facing.

National Unity chief Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid have repeatedly rejected any possibility of sitting in a Netanyahu-led government. This week, however, Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern said he would welcome a unity government proposal due to the ongoing national crisis over the judicial shakeup.

Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana speaks during a plenary session in the Knesset plenum, June 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Do you really think there is a better solution to the deep crisis the country is currently in?” Kahana wrote on Twitter. “This government could heal the deep internal divide among us and make room for all parts of society in Israel.”

Despite his party leader’s repeated denials, Kahana said he believes that “if such a scenario were even remotely possible, [Gantz] would seriously consider it.”

Hebrew media cited a source close to Gantz who responded that individual MKs are entitled to express their personal views but indicated this did not reflect Gantz’s position.

For its part, Yesh Atid said in a statement, “A unity government with Netanyahu would destroy the country.”

Haredi tensions with Likud

In recent days, reports have emerged that Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin are seeking to pause the judicial overhaul due to Haredi discomfort with the fierce public backlash.

Kikar Hashabat, a prominent Haredi news site, reported Tuesday that United Torah Judaism, an Ashkenazi Haredi party with seven lawmakers whose support is crucial to Netanyahu’s hard-right, Likud-led coalition, has demanded that the entire legislative process to curb the powers of the judiciary be halted indefinitely and only be advanced if there is broad agreement with the opposition.

Protesters lift flags and banners during a rally against the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv on August 12, 2023. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

Citing the head of one of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset factions, the report said Haredi coalition partners are deeply troubled by Netanyahu’s conduct and feel he’s trying to deflect the fierce criticism of the overhaul onto the Haredi community, including by issuing a statement against recent incidents of discrimination against women by devoutly religious bus drivers and passengers, and against the backdrop of efforts to pass the bill regulating military exemptions for Haredi men.

According to the report, the demand for a freeze stems from concerns by Haredi leaders that the current outline of the overhaul — a highly controversial plan to weaken the judiciary and transfer some of its power to the executive and legislative branches — promises too few benefits to justify exposing their constituents to hostility by the overhaul’s opponents, and its divisive effects on Israeli society more broadly.

The report added that if more overhaul bills were brought for votes without the agreement of the opposition, the Haredi parties would vote against them.

The Israel Hayom daily reported that Netanyahu and Levin were looking into freezing the overhaul for a year in order to calm the anti-overhaul movement and create the atmosphere needed to pass the controversial draft law.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have demanded the passage of the law on the basis of a Likud promise in the coalition agreements. In recent days, Likud officials have reportedly told the Haredi parties that the public atmosphere was too volatile to legislate that law.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police as they protest against the arrest of a Haredi Jewish man who failed to comply with the military draft, in Jerusalem, September 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In 2017, the High Court of Justice invalidated the current military conscription law, which gives sweeping exemptions to full-time religious scholars. It gave the government a series of deadlines and extensions by which time it was to legislate a new enlistment law, and allowed the Defense Ministry to rely upon the current, struck-down law until a replacement is passed. The government’s 15th, and current, extension to legislate a solution expired at the end of July.

As a preemptive move, the government in June approved a decision enabling the military to continue excusing ultra-Orthodox Israelis from the IDF draft.

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