Government approves ultra-Orthodox draft bill ahead of crucial Knesset vote

Defense minister praises proposal to formalize military enlistment for yeshiva students; first plenary vote set for Monday

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Illustrative. Soldiers belonging to the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda unit. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative. Soldiers belonging to the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda unit. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday approved a bill formalizing military enlistment for ultra-Orthodox students, setting up the bill for a first Knesset reading on Monday.

All government ministers voted in favor of the bill except Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who skipped the vote.

Both Deri and Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who respectively head the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, have expressed their opposition to the legislation in its current version, though the bill is still likely to pass with the support of the opposition Yesh Atid party.

The bill formalizes exemptions to mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox seminary students by setting yearly conscription targets. Seminaries that fail to meet the targets would be hit by economic penalties under the legislation.

On Monday morning, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will hold a special meeting to set the coalition’s position on the bill before a first plenary reading in the afternoon.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following Sunday’s vote, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman praised the committee from his ministry that crafted the legislation.

“I congratulate the members of the members of the IDF and Defense Ministry committee for their professional and practical work, which a short while ago won the government’s confidence,” said Liberman in a statement.

“This is the law of the defense establishment — for security and for the State of Israel,” he added.

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 option to pass a new law by September 1, 2018.

Despite their opposition to the current proposal, leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties have reportedly been holding talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and have agreed not to bring down the government over the bill.

Instead, the prime minister will reportedly announce early elections once a softened version of the legislation has passed, the Maariv newspaper reported on Friday.

According to the report, neither side wants the government to fall over the bill, because of fears it would boost Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which has campaigned strongly in favor of drafting members of the ultra-Orthodox community into the army.

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)

Netanyahu is also said to be concerned that a national election campaign in the near future could harm Likud’s showing in October’s municipal elections throughout the country.

The report said that despite their protestations and threats, the ultra-Orthodox parties realize that if the conscription bill doesn’t pass they will be handing votes to Lapid and likely weakening their bargaining position in the next government.

Announcing elections for the first half of 2019, after a softened enlistment bill passes, could instead allow both Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties to claim to their respective constituents that they had won a victory.

Elections are not due until the end of October 2019, but a senior political source told Maariv that talks between the prime minister and the ultra-Orthodox parties have been taking place over the past few weeks to work out a preferred earlier date.

Publicly, the ultra-Orthodox parties have said they are seeking to remove the sanctions from the legislation and delay implementation of the law for the next three years.

The 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 current version sets the target for ultra-Orthodox recruits for 2018 at just below 4,000 recruits with that 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.

If 95% of the targets are not met, sanctions in the form of cuts to state funding allocated to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas would be put in place, increasing each year the targets are missed.

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