High Court gives state another 6 weeks to pass ultra-Orthodox conscription law

High Court gives state another 6 weeks to pass ultra-Orthodox conscription law

Hours before Haredi deferment regulations expire, justices again extend deadline for contentious legislation to January 14

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police as they protest the army draft in Jerusalem, November 28, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police as they protest the army draft in Jerusalem, November 28, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Sunday granted the government a month-and-a-half extension to pass a contentious new law on the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men.

Current regulations that allow ultra-Orthodox seminary students to defer their mandatory IDF service were set to expire on Sunday, and without the extension, thousands of yeshiva students would have become eligible to be drafted.

Last week, the Netanyahu government requested a four-month extension from the High Court, saying it needed more time to pass the enlistment law in the wake of Avigdor Liberman’s sudden resignation as defense minister. Liberman also pulled his Yisrael Beytenu party out of Netanyahu’s coalition, leaving it with the minimum majority of 61 out of 120 total Knesset seats.

On Sunday, justices extended the deadline again, giving Netanyahu’s government until January 15 to pass the legislation, far less than the four months it requested.

Liberman has been a vocal supporter of the Defense Ministry-drafted bill, which sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas, or rabbinical seminaries, where they study. At the same time, it would also formalize exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.

Most in the ultra-Orthodox community eschew the mandatory military service that applies to Israelis, and the community has historically enjoyed blanket exemptions from the army in favor of religious seminary studies.

In its petition to the High Court, the government argued that since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named himself defense minister in the wake of Liberman’s departure, he needed additional time to examine the issue before a new law could be passed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last September, the High Court ruled that a 2015 version of Israel’s draft law granting most yeshiva students exemptions from service was unconstitutional, and gave lawmakers a year to institute new guidelines for ultra-Orthodox enlistment. The court later extended the deadline, giving the government until December 2 to pass an amended version of the enlistment bill.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads the United Torah Judaism coalition party, has said his faction will not vote in favor of a Defense Ministry-backed bill, making opposition support necessary if the proposed legislation is to become law.

According to reports, Netanyahu is confident that he can pass the bill even without ultra-Orthodox support by turning to the secularist opposition parties Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu, both of which supported the legislation in its initial Knesset vote. However, backing the bill in its current form could risk losing coalition partners and potentially bring down his government.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset, on August 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Both Liberman and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid have said that they will not support any changes to the current version of the bill, suggesting that even minor amendments put forward by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers would be rejected.

On Sunday, Liberman slammed the court’s decision, saying that granting an extension allows the government to continue to hem and haw on the bill.

“It’s unfortunate the High Court did not order to put an end to this sensitive and painful issue that has accompanied the state since its founding,” Liberman tweeted. “In its decision, the High Court has allowed for additional foot-dragging of the survival government and turned the issue of enlistment into a political bargaining chip.”

Lapid also criticized the court-granted extension and accused Netanyahu of pandering to his ultra-Orthodox political partners.

MK Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party at the Knesset on November 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The High Court decision on the enlistment bill doesn’t change the fact that Netanyahu could have passed the bill months ago already,” Lapid tweeted.

“Instead of this, [Netanyahu] does what he always does — surrender to the ultra-Orthodox again and again because surrender is his art. The main thing is to protect his seat, everything is petty politics,” Lapid adds.

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