Crunch-time coalition meeting called on conscription bill, as elections loom

Netanyahu to hold emergency debate Monday in attempt to find way forward for controversial legislation as Haredi leaders threaten to topple the government

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coalition chairman David Amsalem at a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on June 25, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coalition chairman David Amsalem at a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on June 25, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting of coalition heads on Monday to debate the bill on the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men, in a last-ditch attempt to solve the impasse over the contentious legislation that increasingly threatens to bring down the government.

The heads of the various coalition parties are set to meet at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem at 1 p.m., a day before the Knesset is to begin preparing the bill for its final readings and less than a month before the Supreme Court-imposed deadline to pass a new version of the current law.

Last September, the court ruled that a 2015 version of Israel’s draft law granting most yeshiva students exemptions from service was unconstitutional, telling lawmakers they must pass new guidelines for ultra-Orthodox enlistment. Earlier this month, the court granted the government a further month and a half to pass the bill, extending an early December deadline to mid-January.

Without the extension, thousands of yeshiva students would have become eligible to be drafted.

Police arrest an ultra-Orthodox Jew protesting the arrest of a draft dodger on August 2, 2018, in Jerusalem (Israel Police)

As it stands, the ultra-Orthodox parties are split over the current proposal and appear to be presenting an inextricable problem for the coalition: the Shas party is backing the bill and has reportedly said it will leave the government if it doesn’t pass, while a faction within the United Torah Judaism says exactly the opposite, threatening to leave if it does.

“It’s explosive,” a coalition source told The Times of Israel on Monday.

“There is no clear answer,” the source said, declining to comment on efforts to persuade opposition parties to back the bill.

With the coalition holding a paper-thin majority of just 61 of the 120 Knesset seats, either party leaving would bring down the government and force new elections.

Elections are currently slated for November 2019, though recent coalition changes have threatened to bring that date forward.

The Defense Ministry-drafted bill, the current proposal on the table, would set minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would trigger financial sanctions on the yeshivas where the students study. At the same time, it would also formalize exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.

Most in the ultra-Orthodox community eschew the mandatory military service required of other Israelis, and the community has historically enjoyed blanket exemptions from the army in favor of religious seminary studies.

But many view the current bill as the best possible deal for the ultra-Orthodox, and some in the community have warned that rejecting it will lead to chaos and mass conscription.

While the Shas party and the Degel Hatorah faction within the United Torah Judaism party have called for the bill to pass as it is, UTJ’s Agudat Yisrael faction is still demanding that minor changes be made.

Last month, UTJ’s chairman, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, informed the cabinet that an earlier decision by his party’s rabbinical council meant that if the latest proposal for a new version of the bill is passed into law, he and fellow faction member Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush would be forced to resign.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a Health Committee meeting at the Knesset on July 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

That impasse seemed no closer to being resolved on Monday. Citing coalition chairman David Amsalem’s Sunday assertion that “no changes will be made to the the bill,” UTJ has said it will boycott the meeting of coalition heads. Shas said it has yet to decide whether to attend.

Earlier this month, a senior coalition official told The Times of Israel that there would be new elections if the bill is not passed in its current form.

“Those are the only two options: passing the current version or going to elections,” said the source, who has direct knowledge of negotiations over the legislation.

While Avigdor Liberman and Yair Lapid, who lead the opposition Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid parties, respectively, have previously said they would support the bill if no changes are made to the Defense Ministry version, both have wavered in recent days in a possible attempt to capitalize on the coalition’s vulnerable status — reduced to the smallest possible majority of 61 MKs, after Liberman resigned earlier this month as defense minister and withdrew his party from the coalition.

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