A United Torah Judaism lawmaker threatened on Sunday to bring down the government and send the country to early elections if his faction’s demand for an additional NIS 600 million ($164 million) as part of the upcoming state budget is not met.
MK Yisrael Eichler, of the Agudat Yisrael faction within UTJ, told Haredi news site Kikar HaShabbat that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already broken a series of campaign promises to the Haredi parties, forcing them to reevaluate their support of the government.
Eichler said his faction first agreed to hold back on its demand for a swift law exempting Haredi men from military service until a so-called override clause was legislated as part of the government’s judicial overhaul plan. The High Court of Justice has repeatedly struck down the draft exemptions bill as unconstitutional, and the proposed override clause would allow a simple majority of lawmakers to re-legislate the law.
But since the overhaul has now been paused and Netanyahu has repeatedly come out against the override clause in its proposed form, Eichler said: “The moment there is no [judicial] reform, no draft [exemption law], and no [additional] budget, we will need to reevaluate what we are doing here.”
Asked by the interviewer what other choices his faction has moving forward, Eichler said: “Perhaps there’s a choice called elections.”
Asked if he believed the judicial overhaul would end up passing, Eichler derided Netanyahu, and referred to him by his commonly used nickname: “If Bibi were a leader, he would have passed it. Unless a military coup was carried out against him — and a military coup was done to him. I can’t judge someone who had a military coup done to him. He’s not in control. But he will need to retake control of matters.”
Eichler’s remark appeared to be an apparent reference to a threat by many reserve soldiers, including pilots and soldiers in elite units, not to show up for training or even for operational duty if the overhaul passes, saying that would be serving under a “dictatorship.” The protest caused Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to warn of tangible danger to Israel’s security, which ultimately forced Netanyahu to freeze the entire legislative push.
Citing promises made as part of the coalition deal with Netanyahu’s Likud party, the Agudat Yisrael faction of UTJ, led by party leader and Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, has for days been threatening to pull out of the coalition and vote down the budget if the party does not receive the demanded funds for full-time religious scholars.
The Knesset is preparing to vote on the 2023-2024 overall budget, allocating NIS 484.8 billion this year and NIS 513.7 billion in 2024, up from NIS 452.5 billion in 2022. Failure to pass the state budget by May 29 would trigger the automatic dissolution of the government and snap elections.
Netanyahu is not only one facing problems over the budget from his ultra-Orthodox allies. Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has ordered his Otzma Yehudit lawmakers to boycott Knesset votes in a bid to pressure allied parties to divert more funds to his party’s priorities in the budget — specifically the Negev and Galilee Ministry held by the faction.
Otzma Yehudit has griped that other parties are receiving billions for their projects while it has been given less for the issues it wants to advance, particularly encouraging Jewish settlement in the country’s north and south.
Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech on Sunday told Kan radio that budget promises for the Negev and Galilee “have simply dissolved.”
“People are telling us this is the most harmful government to the Negev and Galilee,” she said.
“I can’t vote for a budget like this,” she added, and vowed that “there won’t be compromises.” She said she hoped the prime minister would change his mind, but avoided explicitly saying her party would send the country to elections over the matter.
Netanyahu dismissed the seriousness of the disagreements at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, stressing that the state budget will pass.
“I have some experience; I have passed 20 budgets. Last-minute arguments always arise, and we will overcome them,” Netanyahu said.
Out of NIS 13.7 ($3.8) billion in discretionary funds approved by the government on May 14, about NIS 3.7 billion is promised to be spent on increasing the budget for stipends at Haredi yeshiva student institutions, despite criticism that the community’s schools skirt full Education Ministry oversight and fail to teach core subjects to prepare students for the workforce, including math, science, and English.
Another NIS 1.2 billion is budgeted for private, non-supervised educational institutions, which also do not teach core subjects such as math and English.
About NIS 1 billion is directed as an allowance for a food voucher program being pushed by Shas party leader Aryeh Deri. Additional funds will be funneled for ultra-Orthodox education, constructing religious buildings, and supporting Haredi Jewish culture and identity.
As the factions demanded extra funds, unnamed senior coalition members were quoted as saying that revisiting the budget at this stage, after the lengthy process of approving it in the Knesset’s Finance Committee, would be “madness.”
Agudat Yisrael has three lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset, meaning the 64-strong coalition can pass the budget without their votes. However, the faction has urged the other party which makes up UTJ — Degel HaTorah led by Moshe Gafni — to join its demand by withholding its four votes.
Moreover, several reports said Goldknopf was threatening to resign as housing and construction minister, allowing him to return to the Knesset as a fourth member of the Agudat Yisrael under the so-called Norwegian law, to vote against the budget. A Thursday report said Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush, also of the Agudat Yisrael faction, had threatened to do the same.