Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman vowed Monday to oppose a compromise bill which grants members of the ultra-Orthodox community exemptions from enlisting in the IDF, even at risk of bringing down the government, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged him to stay in the ruling coalition and stave off early elections.
The bill, which is at the center of a fierce government crisis that could lead to early elections, passed its first hurdle on Monday, getting approval from the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Pushed by the ultra-Orthodox parties, it is vocally opposed by Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, which filed an appeal with the cabinet against the bill.
Liberman lambasted the bill at the Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting shortly afterward, saying his party would oppose the bill when it comes up for a preliminary vote in the parliament plenum. “The legislation as presented is what is called a classic fake law,” he said.
“To expect Yisrael Beytenu to support this legislation is absurd. This is one big theater of the absurd. We’ll vote against the enlistment law,” he added.
“They gave a phone book to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation instead of a law, saying will will pass it now and we’ll change it later, that it doesn’t matter that we don’t know what the final bill looks like, it doesn’t matter that the attorney general opposes it. It’s not important. Right now pass this phone book,” Liberman said.
“I call on other parties to be serious and not to give up their principles just for the sake of retaining their seats,” he said. “My feeling is that if we were to vote for this law it would be a betrayal of soldiers who are serving in the army today. There can’t be a situation where most Israelis serve three years to protect Israeli citizens but one group is exempt.”
He vowed his faction would stick with the decision even if it meant being kicked out of the coalition.
The statement came minutes after Netanyahu urged Liberman and other coalition allies to stick with his government for the sake of Israel’s “security, prosperity and stability,” despite the advancement of the bill.
“Our government is an excellent government,” Netanyahu said on Monday in a statement. “It is bringing tremendous achievements to Israel in security, in economy and diplomatically. That is why it is important to continue our partnership which produces these tremendous achievements.”
“I call on all coalition partners, first and foremost Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, to stay in the government and continue this partnership to guarantee safety, prosperity and stability to the State of Israel,” Netanyahu added.
Should Liberman bolt the coalition, leaving it with 61 seats out of 120, that would likely spell early elections. Netanyahu said Sunday he would not lead a government with such a paper-thin margin.
Netanyahu had seemed poised to save his government after reaching a reported 11th-hour deal Sunday night with the ultra-Orthodox factions in the coalition to push the conscription bill through the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and bring it to a preliminary plenum vote.
The 2019 state budget would then be approved with those parties’ support, as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has been demanding, and the bill would then be shelved until the Knesset’s summer session. But Liberman has vociferously opposed the bill, which is seen as giving the ultra-Orthodox the ability to dodge the country’s mandatory military draft.
Kahlon’s Kulanu party has refused to support the law in the plenum vote if Yisrael Beytenu doesn’t vote for it as well, the Haaretz daily reported Monday, making Liberman’s party’s support crucial to maintaining the coalition. The ultra-Orthodox have refused to vote for the 2019 state budget by week’s end if the bill does not pass its preliminary reading, and Kahlon said he will quit if the budget is not passed.
The bill is also reportedly opposed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who said he could not defend its current wording in the High Court of Justice.
Mandelblit is expected to oppose the deal, Hebrew-language media reported Monday, since the conscription law meant to be promoted according to the compromise isn’t the one coordinated with him by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
A Knesset statement said Monday that the legislation process would continue with coordination with the Defense Ministry and the attorney general. Shaked has also said that promotion of the conscription bill would be coordinated with Liberman.
The game of brinkmanship has sparked the most severe coalition crisis yet for the three-year-old Netanyahu government, and at times on Sunday, snap elections as early as June seemed all but assured.
Netanyahu has effectively told his coalition partners that he was willing to go to elections, and would only work to prevent the government’s collapse if he received upfront assurances that the other parties in the government did not plan to topple it down the road. The prime minister is beset by several corruption allegations, and his coalition partners have hinted that they would likely dismantle the government should he be indicted.
Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.