In race against time, Defense Ministry presents conscription bill outline to PM

In race against time, Defense Ministry presents conscription bill outline to PM

Coalition sources say proposal likely be brought to AG this week before ministerial approval for fast-track Knesset process

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

With a legislative deadline imposed by ultra-Orthodox parties fast approaching, the Defense Ministry has finished its final recommendations on a contentious bill to exempt yeshiva students from the military draft, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.

Netanyahu told his Likud party’s lawmakers that he was set to receive the recommendations later in the day and would then begin the legislative process in order to complete work on the bill by the June 22 deadline.

Coalition sources told The Times of Israel that the bill would likely be presented to the attorney general this week and then to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation next Sunday, where they hope it will receive authorization to be fast-tracked through the Knesset.

Giving his coalition partners an ultimatum, the head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said last week that if the proposal is not passed into law by then, when the Knesset summer recess begins, the party will leave the government, likely spelling its untimely end.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is also chairman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, speaks to journalists after handing in his resignation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (unseen) in Jerusalem, November 26, 2017. (AFP/GALI TIBBON)

“It needs to pass its three readings by the end of this legislative session, otherwise we will leave,” Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman told Army Radio. “If the law doesn’t pass, we are leaving the government, unequivocally.”

Litzman’s ultimatum comes ahead of a September deadline set by the High Court of Justice for the Knesset to re-legislate a previous exemption that the court disqualified.

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

Illustrative: Police remove ultra-Orthodox demonstrators who are blocking a road during a protest against army conscription in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2018. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

After a similar ultimatum was made by Litzman’s UTJ during the Knesset’s winter session, coalition partners reached a last-minute deal to cooperate on the contentious issue in order to reach an agreement before the deadline. But a compromise agreement has been elusive, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman vowing that his staunchly secular Yisrael Beytenu party will not fold in the face of demands made by its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have submitted two parallel bills on the military draft. The first, a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would enshrine long-term Torah study as a recognized form of official service to the state in lieu of military service. The second bill would force the Defense Ministry to grant deferrals to yeshiva students, and refers back to the proposed Basic Law repeatedly in defending the arrangements. The ultra-Orthodox parties have long been opposed, on principle, to supporting Basic Laws.

According to the March deal, the ultra-Orthodox conscription bills would be shelved until the Defense Ministry presented its own recommendations for amendments, which would then be brought for a Knesset vote.

Speaking at his Yisrael Beytenu Knesset faction meeting last Monday, Liberman said that the Defense Ministry proposals had been due to be presented to him the previous day but that the committee working on them requested a extension of several days.

He said that once the recommendations are presented to him, “I will read them and assess them, and if they are acceptable, we will present them [to the Knesset] next week.”

With coalition Knesset members numbering 66 of the 120-seat legislature, the loss of UTJ’s six seats would almost certainly bring about new elections.

“I’m not scared of elections,” Litzman said. “The polls show that it’s OK.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at the faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu part at the Knesset, March 5, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

While the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has long been a contentious one in Israel — revolving 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 — months of sporadic street protests have recently been organized by the so-called Jerusalem Faction, which refuses to have any connection with the military.

Although ultra-Orthodox Israelis are routinely exempted from enlistment, they are required to report to enlistment offices in order to sign a deferral of service, which Jerusalem Faction rabbinic leaders order their students not to do. The protests, usually focused in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, and Beit Shemesh, have led to violent clashes with police.

Ultra-Orthodox seminary students have been largely exempt from Israel’s military draft since then-defense minister David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 students from service in 1949 on the grounds that “their studies are their craft.”

Over the years, the High Court of Justice has struck down a number of changes to the laws regarding ultra-Orthodox exemptions from military service, finding them to be a violation of the principle of equality.

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