In fresh coalition crisis, religious party places ultimatum over army exemptions

In fresh coalition crisis, religious party places ultimatum over army exemptions

United Torah Judaism said to be holding budget approval hostage in order to push through law allowing ultra-Orthodox to avoid enlistment, putting new pressure on Netanyahu

Ultra-Orthodox men holding a sit-in in front of an army recruitment center in Jerusalem, on November 28, 2017. (Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men holding a sit-in in front of an army recruitment center in Jerusalem, on November 28, 2017. (Flash90)

An ultra-Orthodox party in the governing coalition reportedly warned Thursday that it wouldn’t allow the state budget for 2019 to pass until a law granting members of their communities army service exemptions is approved.

The threat could pave the way for a fresh crisis in the government, already plagued by mounting corruption investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The rabbinical council which governs much of the decision-making in the United Torah Judaism party reportedly instructed its lawmakers to vote against the budget — the passing of which is a high priority of the prime minister and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who want to secure it as early as possible — as long as the army exemption law isn’t promoted, according to Hebrew media reports.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties hold an emergency meeting at the Knesset regarding the Supreme Court’s decision on ultra-Orthodox exemptions from compulsory military service, September 13, 2017. (Flash90)

In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down the law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermined the principle of equality before the law.

The decision raised the possibility that they could be forced into service, a highly contentious proposition with dramatic political and social implications. 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.

The UTJ demand raised the prospect that Likud could be forced to capitulate to avoid new elections, which could end up helping the opposition Yesh Atid party, a secular stronghold which has become the ruling faction’s chief rival in recent polls.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attend the opening ceremony of the Bahadim IDF Training Bases City in southern Israel, November 15, 2016. (Haim Bornstein/POOL)

Sources from Yisrael Beytenu, a coalition party which has pushed against laws favoring the ultra-Orthodox, also expressed fears of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s fortunes rising because of the UTJ ultimatum, the Ynet news site reported.

A UTJ official confirmed to Ynet that the party was trying to take advantage of the opportunity created by Netanyahu’s bid to quickly push through the budget. The prime minister is hoping to steady his coalition amid a series of corruption scandals that have threatened to push him from power.

A Likud source told the Haaretz daily that some in the party feared Netanyahu would be unable to please both UTJ and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, thus considerably weakening the coalition or even bringing it down.

“Liberman has decided to inflate the issue of state and religion. He will not allow the law to move forward,” the source said. “The ultra-Orthodox need to show something to placate their extreme flank, and we are stuck in the middle. This is an issue that’s impossible to bridge, and the prime minister does not have dozens of free hours to sit with all the parties.”

Earlier this month, UTJ and fellow ultra-Orthodox party Shas reportedly threatened to bring down the government after Netanyahu told them he would not currently support a new version of the military draft law.

Senior Knesset sources had told Israel Radio at the time that a new draft exemption law was not going to be advanced in the near future since the High Court ruling that nixed the previous version gave the government until September to come up with an alternative. They said the issue would take a backseat until the 2019 budget is approved by the Knesset.

Ultra-Orthodox ministers and their parties have in the past used the threat of bolting the government to gain leverage on legislation that enforces religious principles, most recently over legislation that prevents local municipalities from permitting mini-markets to open on Saturdays unless they gain approval from the interior minister. Since the current interior minister is Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the law effectively gives the ultra-Orthodox party power over the Saturday shop licenses.

During the political wrangling to pass the so-called Mini-market Law, which was opposed by Yisrael Beytenu, Deri threatened to resign if it were not brought for a Knesset vote. The law passed, although Yisrael Beytenu broke coalition ranks and voted against it.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with police during a protest against the arrest of a religious seminary students who failed to comply with a recruitment order, next to the army draft office in Jerusalem, November 28, 2017. (Flash90)

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the head of UTJ, resigned in November 2017 as health minister in protest against work on the national rail network that was carried out on Shabbat. He returned, but only under the title of deputy minister, as part of a compromise deal with Netanyahu and other coalition parties to push some pet measures while leaving others to the side. The military draft was not directly included in that pact.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has been a controversial one in Israel, with more extreme members of the Haredi community carrying out regular protests against the draft, with some of them turning violent.

The issue revolves around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas, or seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service, like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population. After reaching the age of 18, men must serve for 32 months and women for 24.

Netanyahu is facing possible indictments in two separate corruption scandals, while two additional scandals have entangled several people close to him. His coalition partners have thus far stuck by him, but some analysts have predicted Netanyahu may be pushed into calling early elections to shore up support as his legal woes pile up.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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