Elections loom as ultra-Orthodox leaders reject compromise bill

Elections loom as ultra-Orthodox leaders reject compromise bill

Fight over conscription seems bound to bring down government as Haredi parties, Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu refuse to settle; Netanyahu raises demands for ending crisis

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on November 20, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on November 20, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The chances for early elections rose markedly on Sunday evening, as the spiritual leaders of the major ultra-Orthodox political factions rejected a compromise bill on the Haredi draft proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ultra-Orthodox coalition parties threatened last week to vote down the 2019 budget unless legislation is approved this week exempting members of their communities from the military draft, while Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened to quit his post — and, some pundits suggested, possibly the coalition — if the budget isn’t passed this week.

The threats sparked what may be the most severe coalition crisis yet for the three-year-old Netanyahu government.

The United Torah Judaism party’s Council of Torah Sages on Sunday instructed the party’s lawmakers not to compromise on their original demand that a UTJ-drafted bill ensuring that all ultra-Orthodox seminary students are exempt from the military draft be passed into law by the end of the week.

The rabbis’ instructions came in a letter to the lawmakers that was received just hours after a meeting of coalition leaders on the matter saw two key actors in the crisis — Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman and UTJ head Yaakov Litzman — skip the gathering.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018 (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

The move is a de facto rejection of a compromise proposed Saturday night by Netanyahu that would see the budget bill for 2019 passed this week, while the ultra-Orthodox draft bill is advanced at least past its first of three votes in the Knesset.

Once it became clear that neither Liberman, the defense minister, nor Litzman, the deputy health minister, planned to show up, Netanyahu disbanded the meeting.

Earlier Sunday, Likud officials said there was no progress on talks to end the crisis.

“The coalition leaders’ meeting was held in a good atmosphere,” a statement from the party said, adding, “There is still no agreed upon [legislative] formula between ultra-Orthodox parties [UTJ and Shas]. The coalition leaders are waiting for their version and afterwards will continue the discussions in order to solve the crisis.”

The crisis continues despite an overnight summit between Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in which Netanyahu presented his conditions for ending the standoff: full agreement from the ultra-Orthodox on a compromise version of a new draft bill, a commitment from Liberman to let the bill pass in parliament, and a commitment from Kahlon, the finance minister and Kulanu chairman, to vote in favor.

Liberman has insisted throughout the crisis that he would not support any version of the conscription bill that isn’t drafted by his own ministry and the IDF, and served the army’s needs first.

Netanyahu has effectively told his coalition partners that he’s willing to go to elections, and would only work to prevent the government’s collapse if he received up-front assurances that the other parties in the government didn’t plan to topple it down the road. The prime minister is beset by several corruption allegations, and his coalition partners have hinted that they would likely dismantle the government should he be indicted.

Earlier Sunday, Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett, the education minister, said he would rethink support for the prime minister if early elections were called over his legal woes.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018.(Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Some “coalition sources” charged that the Sunday parley of party leaders was a ruse, claiming that “Netanyahu acted surprised when Liberman didn’t show up but it was a ‘fake meeting’ in the first place,” the Walla news site reported.

For his part, Netanyahu has insisted throughout the day that he wished to avoid early elections. “We are working toward a stable government that will continue until the end of its term in November 2019,” Netanyahu told his Knesset faction Sunday morning.

“In order for that to happen,” the prime minister said, “all of the factions must come to an agreement and decide to continue together. We are working to try and achieve this because Israeli citizens want a stable government that will last its intended time.”

Shas leader and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said Sunday that given the opposition within the coalition to the conscription bill, Netanyahu’s conditions prove that he wants elections and that negotiations are a waste of time, Army Radio reported.

Kahlon, however, made clear his Kulanu party’s willingness to go to early polls. The defection of its 10 MKs would mean the end of the coalition. Asked on his way to the cabinet meeting Sunday morning about the possibility of the government dissolving due to the crisis, he said: “We are ready for elections. Of course.”

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