The Knesset on Monday afternoon was set to vote on a contentious bill formalizing military enlistment for ultra-Orthodox students, in a session that is expected to see coalition members turn against the government and one opposition party switch allegiances to support the legislation.
The bill formalizes exemptions to mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox seminary students by setting yearly conscription targets. Seminaries that fail to meet the targets would be hit by economic penalties under the legislation.
Even though the two ultra-Orthodox coalition parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, intend to vote against the bill in its first reading, their missing votes will be countered by support from the opposition Yesh Atid party, which has said it will vote with the government.
The bill would still require two additional plenum votes to become law.
Other opposition parties have criticized Yesh Atid for supporting the bill, with activists from the Zionist Union party demonstrating Sunday outside the homes of Yesh Atid members, urging them to reconsider and oppose the bill.
Yesh Atid, led by MK Yair Lapid, has argued that the legislation is close to a similar bill it had suggested in the past. Key differences are that the current bill does not call for criminal sanctions against students who dodge the draft — only economic penalties against the institutions where they study — and also has a lower quota for the number of ultra-Orthodox who will be drafted each year.
The Joint (Arab) List party, which fields 13 opposition MKs, said its lawmakers will not participate in the vote.
On Monday morning, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, chaired by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, will hold a special meeting to set the coalition’s position on the bill before a first plenary reading in the afternoon.
On Sunday, the cabinet approved the bill for a first Knesset reading the next day.
Both Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who respectively head the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, have expressed their opposition to the legislation in its current version.
In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down a previous law exempting ultra-Orthodox men who were 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 by September 1, 2018.
Despite their opposition to the current proposal, leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties have reportedly been holding talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and have agreed not to bring down the government over the bill.
Instead, the prime minister will reportedly announce early elections once a softened version of the legislation has passed, the Maariv newspaper reported on Friday.
According to the report, neither side wants the government to fall over the bill, because of fears it would boost Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which has campaigned strongly in favor of drafting members of the ultra-Orthodox community into the army.
Netanyahu is also said to be concerned that a national election campaign in the near future could harm Likud’s showing in October’s municipal elections throughout the country.
The report said that despite their protestations and threats, the ultra-Orthodox parties realize that if the conscription bill doesn’t pass they will be handing votes to Lapid and likely weakening their bargaining position in the next government.
Announcing elections for the first half of 2019, after a softened enlistment bill passes, could instead allow both Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties to claim to their respective constituents that they had won a victory.
Elections are not due until the end of October 2019, but a senior political source told Maariv that talks between the prime minister and the ultra-Orthodox parties have been taking place over the past few weeks to work out a preferred earlier date.
Publicly, the ultra-Orthodox parties have said they are seeking to remove the sanctions from the legislation and delay implementation of the law for the next three years.
The proposal sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas where they study.
The current version sets the target for ultra-Orthodox recruits for 2018 at just below 4,000 recruits, with that number increasing by 8 percent per year for three years, 6.5% for the three years after that and 5% for a further four years.
If less than 95% of the target is met, sanctions in the form of cuts to state funding allocated to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas would be put in place, increasing each year the targets are missed.