Facing a rebellion from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers threatening to topple his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed on Wednesday to establish a committee composed of representatives from all six coalition member parties to hammer out an agreed-upon military draft bill.
The decision to form the committee comes as other proposed bills that would exempt ultra-Orthodox seminary students from the military draft were not allowed to come to a preliminary vote in the Knesset on Wednesday amid an escalating fight between the Haredi parties and the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party over the legislation.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, fuming over the decision, vowed to condition their support for the 2019 state budget on the passage of their proposals, even if that meant the budget wouldn’t pass — almost certainly triggering the fall of the coalition.
To end the crisis, Netanyahu convened an hour-and-a-half meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Wednesday attended by himself, Likud ministers Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin, United Torah Judaism head Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, UTJ’s MK Moshe Gafni and Shas’s Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.
At the gathering, Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties agreed that the new committee would be headed by Likud’s Levin, and would include a lawmaker from each of the five other coalition parties, as well as a representative of the attorney general.
Litzman, who leads the United Torah Judaism party, said earlier Wednesday that he was under instructions from the party’s rabbinic leadership, its Council of Torah Sages, according to which he “could not support” the 2019 state budget bill before a draft proposal for a military exemption law was passed.
“The draft law is an inextricable part of the coalition agreement, and we expect all of the coalition factions to support the law if they desire the continued existence of the coalition,” he said in a statement.
The final budget votes are currently scheduled to take place over the next few weeks, before the Knesset goes to recess on March 18.
The ultra-Orthodox parties on Monday 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 official service to the state 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.
The ultra-Orthodox parties have long been opposed, in principle, to the passage of new Basic Laws. But the proposals come ahead of a September deadline by the High Court of Justice to re-legislate the issue, after the court disqualified an earlier law on the grounds that it violated constitutional principles of equality.
In their bills, the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers suggested the draft exemption be granted to any Israeli seeking to pursue Torah study. “This clause is to clarify that Torah study does not belong to a certain sector and is not limited to men and Torah scholars from the ultra-Orthodox community,” the bill explains. “As a result, this bill requires the defense minister to ensure that deferring service will be given to anyone who seeks to dedicate themselves for a significant amount of time to Torah study.”
The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, was formulating its own version of the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who leads the Yisrael Beytenu party, saying that only that proposal would receive the support of his party’s lawmakers.
After the vote was postponed, Liberman accused UTJ of trying to blackmail the government with its vow to vote against the bill at the expense of the coalition, saying that his own party “will not allow it.”
“The draft law is the draft dodging law,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “UTJ’s move is no less than blackmail.
“Yisrael Beytenu will not surrender and will not allow this to happen,” Liberman said.
On Tuesday, Liberman doubled down on his opposition to the bills, prompting a religious lawmaker to say his party will no longer vote for “bizarre laws” if the proposals were not advanced.
“Regarding Haredi enlistment, Yisrael Beytenu’s position is clear and transparent: We will only support legislation put together by the professional team established by the Defense Ministry,” he wrote on Facebook.
Addressing the other coalition parties, Liberman said political agendas should be put to the side on the issue of conscription.
“I ask you to maintain only one agenda: The IDF and the security of the citizens of the State of Israel,” he said. “As a member of the coalition, Yisrael Beytenu is prepared to compromise and be flexible on many issues, except one — the security of the State of Israel.”
Liberman said any attempt to forward a bill not backed by his party “will encounter firm resistance.”
Hitting back at Liberman, a United Torah Judaism lawmaker said the party would withhold its support for other pieces of legislation.
“We won’t vote anymore for the bizarre laws that you present,” said MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) at a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee, which he chairs. He was seated next to Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the Knesset’s second ultra-Orthodox party, Shas.
It wasn’t clear which laws Gafni was calling “bizarre,” though ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and leaders have in the past expressed opposition to Yisrael Beytenu’s proposed bill to allow courts to sentence terrorists to death.
“This is a total crisis, not a mini-crisis,” Gafni later told Israel Radio. “I will topple the coalition over this law.”
Coalition party leaders were scheduled to discuss the new enlistment legislation during their weekly meeting on Sunday, but the issue was not raised, as UTJ’s Litzman skipped the meeting to attend the funeral of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the influential leader of a fiercely anti-draft offshoot of Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy.
The looming showdown between secularist Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties could pave the way for a fresh crisis in the government, already destabilized by mounting corruption investigations against Netanyahu.
In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down a 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.
Earlier this month, UTJ and Shas reportedly threatened to bring down the government after Netanyahu told them he would not support a new version of the repealed military draft law.
The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has been a contentious one in Israel, revolving around a decades-old debate over 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. After reaching the age of 18, many Israeli men must serve for 32 months and women for 24.
Netanyahu is facing possible indictments in two separate corruption scandals, while two additional scandals have entangled several people close to him. His coalition partners have thus far stuck by him, but some analysts have predicted he may be pushed into calling early elections to shore up support as his legal woes pile up.