Lapid: 'The next test will be the conscription law'

Haredim threaten to bolt coalition as PM pulls ‘Rabbis Bill’ from Knesset agenda

Cancelation announced hours before vote was scheduled on contentious law, as Likud MKs voice opposition; Shas, UTJ issue veiled threats to topple government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a plenum session and vote on reviving the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill at the Knesset, Jerusalem, June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a plenum session and vote on reviving the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill at the Knesset, Jerusalem, June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped the highly contentious “Rabbis Bill” from the agenda of the Knesset plenum as well as the parliamentary committee that was set to deliberate the legislation on Wednesday morning, hours before a scheduled vote.

According to a statement from the coalition overnight Tuesday, Netanyahu ordered the move after consulting with coalition whip Ofir Katz, who had been set to remove two fellow Likud lawmakers from the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee over their opposition to the bill.

Referring to the two rebel Likud MKs, Moshe Saada and Tally Gotliv, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said the prime minister was “starting to understand that there are people in Likud who are no longer willing to bear the shame.”

If passed into law, the bill could cost taxpayers tens of millions of shekels annually in salaries for hundreds of new neighborhood rabbis employed by local municipalities.

It would also greatly expand the influence of the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry in the appointment of municipal rabbis at the expense of local authorities — while also eroding the role of women in the process.

Critics of the bill charge that it would benefit the Shas party by providing jobs for its apparatchiks. On Monday evening, Channel 12 reported that Shas chairman Aryeh Deri had threatened to bring down the government if it does not pass.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni (left) speaks with Shas party chair Aryeh Deri during a plenum session and a vote on the ultra-Orthodox conscription bill at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 12 also reported that in a late-night phone call between Netanyahu and Deri on Tuesday, after it became clear that there would not be a majority in favor, the prime minister said he had made every effort to pass the bill and urged the Shas leader not to undermine the coalition over the issue.

But on Wednesday morning, Shas warned that the government’s collapse was inevitable after Netanyahu pulled the bill from the Knesset agenda.

“There is no coalition, there is no discipline, and the most frustrating thing is that Likud is a party made up of 35 separate factions,” complained an unnamed Shas official, speaking to the Kan public broadcaster.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid speaks during a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on the ultra-Orthodox draft law at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The next test will be the conscription law,” Lapid predicted, referring to a vote on a bill that would lower the age at which yeshiva students are exempted from military service from 26 to 21 and slowly increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription. “What is more important, political survival or the survival of the troops?”

Lawmakers are currently in the process of finding a compromise on drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, which Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair Yuli Edelstein said Tuesday could provide an opportunity to solve one of the longest-running controversies in Israeli politics.

While many in the coalition have expressed significant reservations about the Haredi draft bill, all coalition MKs bar one voted in favor of it in the Knesset plenum last week, with some explaining they believed it could be salvaged by emendation in committee. It is now being prepared for the second and third readings it must pass to become law.

The widely read Hamodia newspaper, affiliated with the United Torah Judaism party, issued a message to the Likud party in its Wednesday editorial that echoed the Shas threat.

“The topic of our dear yeshiva students learning Torah is of utmost importance [to the ultra-Orthodox voter base],” the newspaper said. “It is existential, it is in our very soul.”

Illustrative: Haredi students study at the Kamenitz Yeshiva, in Jerusalem, August 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“Since 2017, the ultra-Orthodox parties have shown loyalty to Likud. In the most of the Knesset lists since then, there would have been no coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties (except for one time when they weren’t needed and were indeed left out).”

Noting that Saada and Gotliv, who were set to be removed from the Knesset committee after their objections stalled the legislation’s progress, the Haredi newspaper threatened to pull its support for sponsored coalition measures, “even at the cost of overthrowing the government.”

Responding to their suspension from the committee, as ordered by Netanyahu, both Likud MKs issued defiant challenges to their own party on Tuesday evening.

“Today in the Constitution Committee we saw mayors, including those representing the Likud party, crying out against the injustice that this law creates, and I am proud to stand by them and by the majority of the public even at the cost of removal from the committee,” Saada tweeted.

“Since the beginning of the war, I have criticized the government whenever it deviates from the values ​​that I and the majority of right-wing voters advocate, and I will continue to fulfill my role without fear.”

Likud MKs Tally Gotliv, left, and Moshe Saada attend a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gotliv, who had reportedly initially agreed to be replaced by another lawmaker for Tuesday’s vote but ultimately backtracked, accused the coalition whip of acting as a “pawn of Deri and Netanyahu.”

The legislation would do away with a requirement for cities to renew municipal rabbis’ terms every 10 years or give them the option of convening election assemblies to appoint a new rabbi. Instead, city rabbis would essentially hold their jobs until they turn 75, after which, in order to continue, they would need to have the city that employs them extend their terms.

Israel has about 470 municipal rabbis in total. Their monthly salaries range from NIS 9,000 ($2,400) to NIS 43,000 ($11,200). Some 30 cities without a rabbi would be forced to hire one under the bill, and Tel Aviv and Haifa, which do not currently have any rabbis, would need to hire a minimum of two.

In an analysis of the bill last year, the Israel Democracy Institute found that it would allow for the hiring of 1,070 new rabbis, though there were only plans for 514, at a cost of NIS 120 million ($33 million).

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, who chairs the Knesset committee that was set to discuss the bill, said on Wednesday morning that the legislation will likely get put back on the agenda.

“Have you ever seen anything final in this building?” Rothman told the Arutz Sheva news site. “Nothing is final.”

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