Liberman, opposition heads decry ultra-Orthodox markup to conscription bill

Liberman, opposition heads decry ultra-Orthodox markup to conscription bill

Defense minister calls for coalition partners to unite to pass law, amid threats by Haredi lawmakers to bring down government over latest proposal

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Leader of the Yesh Atid political party, Yair Lapid, and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, Avigdor Liberman, lead a joint conference in the Knesset regarding Israel's foreign policy. February 29, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Leader of the Yesh Atid political party, Yair Lapid, and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, Avigdor Liberman, lead a joint conference in the Knesset regarding Israel's foreign policy. February 29, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Amid ongoing coalition disagreements over a bill to formalize ultra-Orthodox enlistment, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman joined opposition leaders Monday in rejecting calls to grant the community vast exemptions from the military draft.

Speaking at his weekly Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting at the Knesset, Liberman called on both coalition and opposition parties to support his ministry’s recommendations for the legislation, saying a failure to pass the law will end in “crying for generations.”

“I think this is the most balanced, nonpartisan law and I very much hope that we will bring it next week to debate at the special Knesset committee and pass it by the end of the summer session in its second and third readings,” Liberman said.

With a legislative deadline imposed by ultra-Orthodox parties fast approaching, the Defense Ministry published last week its recommendations for “a durable, realistic and relevant arrangement” for ultra-Orthodox conscription. 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.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting in the Knesset, June 4, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I think there is truly wide consensus for this law from all the factions — both the coalition and the opposition — and not passing it in its current version will simply be a long-term tragedy,” Liberman told his party MKS. “I call on everyone to truly leave aside all the disputes and score settling and to unite over the draft the defense establishment formulated.”

Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid called on the government to pass the bill without any changes to the Defense Ministry recommendations.

“If the government changes one word in this draft, this is no longer politics. This is a betrayal of every soldier who arrives at the Bakum [induction base],” Lapid said his own party’s weekly Knesset faction meeting.

Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay told party that they will vote against any legislation enshrining into law exemptions to mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox students.

“We want every young person to do the army or national service. At the moment this law has no sharing of the burden and no true compensation for soldiers that serve,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that the proposed bill must be passed into law by the Knesset within two weeks.

“We need to finish this issue as quickly as possible in order to pass it in the current Knesset session,” the prime minister said at a meeting of coalition leaders, according to Hebrew reports. “We must make decisions, reach conclusions and bring the proposed bill for government approval within two weeks.”

In his remarks, Netanyahu appeared to be rejecting a demand by the ultra-Orthodox parties to seek a High Court of Justice extension to the September deadline set by the court for the Knesset to re-legislate a previous law that the court had disqualified.

A rabbinic advisory board to another four of the six members of the UTJ party on Thursday called on its lawmakers to leave the coalition if the bill was passed.

The ultimatum prompted senior coalition sources, quoted by Channel 10, to say that “the danger of early elections is again on the table,” after disagreements over the issue almost dissolved the government several months ago.

Illustrative. Soldiers of the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion study Torah at the Peles military base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Speaking Monday, Jewish Home leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett dismissed talk of a coalition crisis over the legislation.

“I think this is a measured law that gives an answer to both the IDF and the ultra-Orthodox, who want the same think — a moderate and measured enlistment of ultra-Orthodox, without coercion or force,” Bennett told his own lawmakers, adding: “I think this is a ‘fake crisis.’ I think story is completely solvable.”

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. 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 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.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman arrives at the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 15, 2017. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

United Torah Judaism head Yaakov Litzman said last week that if a ultra-Orthodox-backed proposal dealing with the community’s conscription is not passed into law by July 22, when the Knesset summer recess begins, the party will leave the government, likely spelling its untimely end.

After a similar ultimatum was made by Litzman’s UTJ during the Knesset’s winter session, coalition partners reached a last-minute agreement to delay passing a final law until the current summer session. But a compromise agreement has been elusive, with Liberman vowing that his staunchly secular Yisrael Beytenu party would 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 national service 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.

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.

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