Controversial military enlistment bill passes first reading in Knesset

Chief opposition whip tweets the bill’s passing is a ‘dubious historical event,’ after opposition faction Yesh Atid votes alongside coalition

Then-IDF Chief Benny Gantz speaks to members of an ultra-Orthodox unit, March 2014 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Then-IDF Chief Benny Gantz speaks to members of an ultra-Orthodox unit, March 2014 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

Legislation addressing ultra-Orthodox military enlistment passed its first reading in the Knesset overnight Monday, in the first of three readings it must pass before becoming law.

A majority of 63 to 39 lawmakers voted for the legislation after a stormy debate. The Yesh Atid faction of the opposition voted alongside the ruling coalition, ensuring the bill’s passage.

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 Knesset votes on new legislation, July 2, 2018 (Flash90)

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.

Ultra-orthodox Jews attend protest against the enlistment bill at the Sanhedria Cemetery in Jerusalem, July 2, 2018 (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The bill sets the enlistment target for 2018 at 3,348, with targets rising by 5-8 percent every year, reaching 6,844 by 2027. Starting in 2020, if enlistment rates do not reach 95% of the target, funds for schools will be reduced accordingly.

If rates do not reach 85% of the yearly target by 2023, the agreement will be canceled. The bill does not detail what the penalties for such cancellation would be. Yesh Atid officials asserted to Haaretz that this would then entail criminal penalties for any who evade enlistment, as is standard for any citizen.

At the request of chief opposition whip MK Yoel Hasson of the opposition Zionist Union faction, the vote was defined as a no-confidence vote in the government.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties both voted against the bill once they had confirmed that there were enough votes for it to pass.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who is on maternity leave after giving birth two weeks ago, also came in to participate in the vote.

After the bill passed Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman expressed his satisfaction, tweeting that “the Knesset showed responsibility.”

MK Yoel Hasson (Zionist Union) addresses the Israeli Knesset, file (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Hasson tweeted that “the law passed with the determined help of Yesh Atid, that today expressed confidence in the Netanyahu government despite being a faction in the opposition, a dubious historical event…If they had not given their support, the law would not have passed.”

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has long been a controversial 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.

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested the bill Monday evening, gathering at the grave of late Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to recite prayers, in a bid to increase pressure on the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to veto the legislation.

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay slammed Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid earlier on Monday for supporting the controversial legislation, saying the party was betraying Israeli soldiers and its own voters by supporting the government-sponsored legislation, and claimed it would have no actual effect on the military draft.

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.

MK Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party at the Knesset on July 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The leader of an ultra-Orthodox party had threatened earlier Monday to bring down the coalition if the bill becomes law.

“If the enlistment law passes three readings, we will quit the coalition,” Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads the United Torah Judaism party, said at the Knesset.

Litzman said the decision to oppose the law was made by the Council of Torah Sages from his Hasidic Agudat Yisrael faction. It was not clear if Degel Hatorah, the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox faction in UTJ, would also quit the coalition if the bill passes into law.

Leader of the ‘Shas’ party Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, right, with leader of the United Torah Judaism party Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman during a joint party meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition, which has 66 of 120 Knesset seats, needs UTJ’s 6 seats in order to preserve its majority.

“We’re against sanctions and all types of other things in this law,” Litzman said. “We must reach a situation that anyone who wants to study at a religious seminary in Israel… will be able to continue studying undisturbed.”

He also said his opposition to the bill will not be influenced by Yesh Atid’s support for it. “I’m sure that no one thinks or dreams that if Lapid supports this bill, we’ll support it,” Litzman said.

Lapid has argued that the legislation is close to a similar bill his party had pushed for 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.

Speaking at a faction meeting earlier Monday, Lapid stressed that his support for the bill was based on its acceptance by the Defense Ministry, and that his party would not support any changes to the proposal in committee debates ahead of its second and third Knesset readings.

Responding to the Yesh Atid leader, Liberman told his own lawmakers that he “is not trying to please either Lapid or the ultra-Orthodox but the defense establishment.”

He rejected possible changes to the current proposal such as removing the sanctions, saying any amendments could risk the bill being challenged by the High Court.

“Everything you change opens a Pandora’s box. We will therefore only accept the law passing in its current version,” he said.

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.

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.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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