Lapid implores Netanyahu: ‘Let’s pass enlistment law, you have our votes’

A day after PM threatens elections if ultra-Orthodox won't compromise on draft bill, Yesh Atid chief tells him, 'you don't have to surrender to the Haredim yet again'

Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid speaks to reporters outside the IDF's main recruitment base, the Bakum, in Tel Hashomer on August 13, 2018. (Courtesy)

Opposition Yesh Atid party leader MK Yair Lapid called for the passage of the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill on Monday in a press conference outside the IDF’s main recruitment base, the Bakum, located east of Tel Aviv.

“Netanyahu, let’s pass this law or let’s go to elections. We can pass this law,” Lapid said, addressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“You have our votes. Yesh Atid’s votes are guaranteed if you want to pass this law. You don’t have to surrender to the Haredim yet again,” Lapid urged. “There is no reason to embarrass yourself yet again in front of [United Torah Judaism chief Deputy Health Minister Yaakov] Litzman and the Admor [Hasidic spiritual leader] from Gur. We can pass this law.”

Litzman is a Gur Hasid who has said his continued opposition to the latest version of the enlistment bill is due to his rabbi’s rejection of the text.

Lapid’s comments come a day after Netanyahu told fellow coalition party leaders that if the ultra-Orthodox parties don’t compromise on passing the military draft law within the next three weeks, he will call early elections.

“We have to know where Litzman stands on the draft issue,” Netanyahu told his top ministers. “The ball is in Litzman’s court. If the ultra-Orthodox parties want to reach a compromise, we can get through this. We have to find out if they want that.”

At the Sunday meeting, those in attendance — including Jewish Home chief Naftali Bennett, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, Shas’s Aryeh Deri and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni representing the party — agreed that if an agreement could not be reached on the draft bill by the next cabinet meeting, then that meeting will set the date of the next election. The next cabinet meeting is set for the beginning of September.

Israeli law requires a 90-day election campaign if a Knesset is disbanded early. If the government decides on elections in early September, the vote would be held 90 days later, in early December.

Two people notably missing from the Sunday meeting were Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who backs the plan put forward by the Defense Ministry and supported by much of the coalition, and Litzman himself, who in the past threatened to leave the government if the bill conscripting ultra-Orthodox seminary students to the army was passed.

On Monday, Lapid delivered his comments while standing at the entrance to the Bakum base at 7 a.m., just as new recruits were arriving for the start of the August enlistment.

“This is a good law,” he insisted. “It will bring many more Haredim to enlist, and many more Haredim will join the workforce.”

If it passes, he added, “We will stand here at the Bakum [in the future] and see young Haredim standing next to our children with a draft letter in hand.”

He also criticized Haredi extremists’ violent protests in recent months against a draft compromise.

“I heard the shouts of the Haredi protesters. They shouted, ‘We will die before we enlist.’ What arrogance. The ones who risk death aren’t the draft-dodgers, but those enlisting in combat units, these amazing young people walking past us here today to enlist. What are we going to tell these amazing young people, who are enlisting into the IDF, if the prime minister again lets the Haredim off the hook because of political blackmail, because everything he does is for political survival?” said Lapid.

Netanyahu’s ultimatum Sunday comes after a High Court of Justice ruling last week that granted only a three-month extension on a deadline it had set for passing legislation on the issue. The state had requested a postponement of seven months from the original September deadline, but was granted less than half of that.

“After considering this matter, we decided to partially respond to the request and postpone the date…so that it will take effect on December 2, 2018,” the court said in its ruling.

In the days following the court ruling, Netanyahu held private meetings with both Liberman and Litzman to try to reach a compromise.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a Knesset Health Committee meeting on July 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Liberman has said he would not support any changes to the current proposal, an already softened bill hammered out by the Defense Ministry and which the IDF says meets its recruitment needs.

If the ultra-Orthodox parties leave the coalition, the government would lose its parliamentary majority, forcing Netanyahu to either bring opposition parties into his government or head to new elections. Elections are currently scheduled to be held in November 2019.

The draft bill would likely enjoy a large majority in the Knesset if Netanyahu agrees to bring it to a vote as-is. Even without the 13 seats of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which would leave Netanyahu eight seats short of the parliamentary majority he needs to pass the law (and govern the country), Lapid’s offer of Yesh Atid’s 11 votes would put him back at a 64-seat majority for the law. Many in the opposition, including in the Zionist Union and Meretz factions, would also likely back the law.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu is unlikely to take Lapid up on the offer in the run-up to an election. He may yet need the support of the Haredi parties to back him for premier if the election is close, and then to help form a stable ruling coalition.

Litzman said Sunday he did not want early elections but thought a compromise unlikely. However, he said, the rabbinic leaders of his community would make the decision on how to respond to Netanyahu’s ultimatum soon.

“Approving a corrected draft bill was one of the central matters which formed the basis of the coalition and the present government,” he said according to the Ynet news site.

“We have no interest in elections but we will not be able to compromise on something as essential and fundamental as protecting the status of our seminary students who learn Torah full time. The various suggestions will be brought to the [party’s] Council of Torah Sages to decide on the matter. Whatever they tell us is what we will do,” he said.

Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion sit in a field at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Last September, the High Court ruled that a 2015 version of Israel’s draft law granting most yeshiva students draft exemptions was unconstitutional, and gave lawmakers a year to institute new guidelines for ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

But the Knesset concluded its spring session on July 19 without passing such a bill, and will not reconvene for the fall session until mid-October.

Without the amended legislation in place, current deferral regulations would expire with the deadline and thousands of yeshiva students would find themselves unable to renew their deferments, making them eligible to be drafted by the IDF.

The contentious current version of the legislation, backed by the Defense Ministry, 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.

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 95% of the targets are not met, sanctions in the form of cuts to state funding allocated to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas failing to show sufficient recruitment numbers from among their students would go into effect. These cuts would increase each year the targets are missed.

The bill passed its first reading in the Knesset at the beginning of July, the first of three readings it must pass before becoming law.

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