Early elections ‘back on the table’ as rabbis issue ultimatum on enlistment law

Early elections ‘back on the table’ as rabbis issue ultimatum on enlistment law

Rabbinical council governing most of UTJ ultra-Orthodox party resolves to leave coalition if bill setting target numbers of religious recruits to IDF advances

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

A rabbinical decision-making council of an ultra-Orthodox party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government called on its lawmakers Thursday to leave the coalition if a bill proposing to formalize limited ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF passes in the Knesset.

The ultimatum prompted senior coalition sources, quoted by Channel 10, to say that “the danger of early elections is again on the table,” after disagreements over the issue almost dissolved the government several months ago.

The Council of Torah Sages, a body responsible for much of the decision-making for the hasidic members of the United Torah Judaism party (UTJ), instructed the four hasidic MKs out of the party’s six lawmakers to try and change the currently proposed bill, and quit the coalition if it is promoted without their approval.

“We will make a demand from Prime Minister Netanyahu that the state request a delay from the High Court of Justice,” a senior source in UTJ was quoted as saying by the Ynet website, referring to a September deadline set by the court for the Knesset to re-legislate a previous exemption that the court disqualified.

In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down the 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.

The Council of Torah Sages main objection to the proposal, put forward by the Defense Ministry, reportedly relates to its call to cut funds for yeshivas and pressure them to encourage their students to enlist by offering financial benefits.

The stance is more extreme than that likely to be adopted by the non-hasidic sect in the party, or of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, according to Channel 10.

Illustrative. Soldiers of the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion study Torah at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

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, or seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population.

Foreshadowing the council’s warning, UTJ head Litzman said last week that if a Haredi-backed proposal dealing with the community’s conscription is not passed into law by July 22, when the Knesset summer recess begins, the party will leave the government, likely spelling its untimely end.

After a similar ultimatum was made by Litzman’s UTJ during the Knesset’s winter session, coalition partners reached a last-minute agreement to delay passing a final law until the current summer session. But a compromise agreement has been elusive, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman vowing that his staunchly secular Yisrael Beytenu party would not fold in the face of demands made by its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

The new proposal sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas where they study.

The proposal specifically recommends “setting new goals for the IDF and National Service draft, an annual increase in the number of those serving, significant financial sanctions on draft dodgers, and increasing benefits and remuneration for those who serve.”

If adopted, the target for 2018 would be set at just below 4,000 recruits, with the number increasing by 8 percent per year for three years, 6.5% for the three years after that and 5% for a further four years.

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset, September 15, 2014 (Photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

If the draft falls short of 95% of those targets, sanctions in the form of cuts to state funds allocated to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas would be put in place. The fines would increase each year the targets are missed.

But the ultra-Orthodox community would still enjoy various exemptions from the regular conscription law, such as its recruits only being obligated to join the army from the age of 24, and not 18 like the regular draft.

The recommendations also create a possible loophole that could inflate the numbers of recruits by allowing those who left the ultra-Orthodox community before the age of 18 to be included within the targets.

Earlier Thursday, Defense Minister Liberman defended his ministry’s bill, saying the proposal was a fair middle line on the divisive issue.

“The proposal doesn’t fit my own worldview, and certainly not [Shas leader Aryeh] Deri’s or [United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov] Litzman’s, but this bill really is the answer, maybe the best one, to the IDF’s needs,” the defense minister said at a conference at Bar-Ilan University.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have submitted two parallel bills on the military draft. The first, a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would enshrine long-term Torah study as a recognized form of national service in lieu of military service. The second bill would force the Defense Ministry to grant deferrals to yeshiva students, and refers back to the proposed Basic Law repeatedly in defending the arrangements.

According to the March deal, the ultra-Orthodox conscription bills would be shelved until the Defense Ministry presented its own recommendations for amendments, which would then be brought for a Knesset vote.

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