Government will ‘fall apart’ without law on Haredi military exemption, warns minister

As the PM drags his feet on the issue, UTJ officials tell ultra-Orthodox weekly that an ‘alternative’ coalition can be formed

File: Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf attends a conference in Tel Aviv on March 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
File: Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf attends a conference in Tel Aviv on March 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Golknopf, head of the United Torah Judaism party, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition could collapse if a law that exempts members of the ultra-Orthodox community from military service does not pass, in remarks set to be published in Haredi media Thursday.

“If the [military] draft outline is not settled, the government will fall apart,” the headline for Goldknopf’s interview with the Mishpacha weekly magazine read. The remarks came as Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies have turned up the heat on this divisive issue in recent days.

Haredi Knesset members have leveraged the upcoming vote on the 2023-2024 state budget in late May to push for progress on the exemption law. The budget must be passed by May 29 to prevent the Knesset’s automatic dissolution, resulting in snap elections.

The coalition agreement between Likud and UTJ stipulates that a Basic Law enshrining Torah study as “a foundational value in the heritage of the Jewish people” and legislation allowing for blanket exemptions from IDF service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students would pass before the state budget was brought to a vote.

The demand for the Basic Law on Torah study is designed to prevent the High Court of Justice from striking down the blanket exemptions law, as it has done on three occasions in the past on the basis that such exemptions violate the principle of equality for all citizens since all other Jewish men are obligated to perform military service.

Netanyahu’s right-wing, religious coalition is seeking to pass new legislation that would lower the age after which men are exempt from military service from 26 to 21 years old.

While soldiers are generally drafted from age 18, many yeshiva students are thought to remain in religious study programs longer than they normally would in order to dodge the draft by claiming academic deferments until they reach the age of final exemption. According to Netanyahu’s most recent proposal from mid-April, by lowering the permanent exemption age, the government hopes to spur those Haredi men to leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age. The current age of exemption has prevented yeshiva students from entering the workforce until after the age of 26, even if they were no longer interested in continuing with their religious studies.

The military opposes such a stark drop in the age and analysts speculate that the sides will have to meet somewhere in the middle.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians, in recent days, have said Netanyahu must honor the coalition agreement or risk the coalition.

“Contrary to what it seems, alternatives can be put together,” UTJ officials told Mishpacha in the forthcoming article, suggesting that an alternative coalition was possible. It’s not immediately clear with which parties.

UTJ MK Moshe Roth warned on Tuesday that Netanyahu would have to take concrete steps on the matter if Likud wants the ultra-Orthodox party’s support on the state budget. Such measures, Roth said, would likely need to include the submission of a draft bill on the issue, which has yet to be drawn up, as well a statement on the timetable for the final passage of the law.

Likud has been seeking to delay passing the law, fearing additional public pushback if it works to pass unpopular legislation after losing significant support over the manner in which it has advanced a deeply controversial judicial overhaul plan, which has now been paused to allow for ongoing compromise talks with the opposition.

As part of the government’s intended judicial remaking, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies are looking to finalize a so-called override clause allowing the Knesset to re-legislate legislation struck down by the High Court of Justice, or shielding certain bills from High Court review from the outset. Another key part of the judicial legislative package will bring most judicial appointments under political control.

Ultra-Orthodox men clash with police in Jerusalem as they protest against the arrest members of the community who failed to comply with their army draft, September 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The override clause is seen by the ultra-Orthodox parties as a further necessity to ensure that the military service exemptions become a permanent fixture of Israeli law. Critics of the overhaul say it would undermine Israel’s democratic foundations by handing the government unrestrained powers.

As frustrations mount over these issues, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush, also from UTJ, said Netanyahu should either honor the agreement or go home.

Earlier this week, reports said the ultra-Orthodox parties had backed down from their demands and agreed that passing the budget and ensuring the stability of the government was the best way for them to eventually pass military draft exemption legislation later this year.

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