Presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has agreed with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction to condition the passage of the next state budget on the approval of a new law formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for yeshiva students, according to a Tuesday report.
Channel 12 news, without citing a source, also said that the sides were expected to ink a coalition deal by the end of the week.
The ultra-Orthodox parties had requested from Likud a change to the conscription law before the expected new government is sworn in, but the two sides were unable to come to an agreement.
As a compromise, UTJ and Shas received a guarantee that the law will be advanced according to their demands and linked to the budget. The law will ensure that yeshiva students who do not enlist in the military will not be suspected of any crimes, the Channel 12 report said.
UTJ has been pushing for legislation to formalize a blanket exemption from compulsory military duty for full-time yeshiva students.
Military service is mandatory for most Jewish Israeli men, but the ultra-Orthodox often receive exemptions in order to continue their religious studies. Some of the most extremist Haredim refuse to even apply for such an exemption, often leading to arrests.
The exemptions have long infuriated secular Israelis, but ultra-Orthodox communities have resisted repeated attempts to force them to register for the draft.
The report came a day after the network claimed that UTJ was making far-reaching demands to impose religious structures on the Israeli public, including barring the generation of electricity on Shabbat, expanding the number of gender-segregated beaches and forming state-funded bodies to address questions on Jewish law, among others.
Following backlash, Netanyahu said Tuesday that he would not agree to suspend electricity production on the Jewish day of rest and pledged Israel will not become a “halachic state,” using the Hebrew term for Jewish law.
However, a separate report Tuesday listed an additional set of demands by UTJ and the fellow ultra-Orthodox Shas party that the Walla news site said Likud has agreed to.
The reported agreement includes legislating a quasi-constitutional Basic Law on Torah study aimed at preventing the High Court of Justice from striking down exemptions to IDF enlistment for yeshiva students on equality grounds; reversing the outgoing government’s decision to open the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute during Shabbat; and maintaining current prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, which will be managed by the Chief Rabbinate.
The latter clause appeared aimed at ensuring the Western Wall compromise is not revived. The deal, which was approved and then frozen by a Netanyahu-led government in 2017 after pushback from Shas and UTJ, would have given official standing to non-Orthodox denominations in the management of the egalitarian section of the Wall while ratifying the gender-segregated status of the main plaza.
The news site said the sides also agreed to remove the authority of the Israeli judiciary’s ombudsman over judges on religious courts, which would be granted expanded powers to weigh in on financial disputes and civil matters in accordance with Torah law.
The current ombudsman, retired Supreme Court justice Uri Shoham, has drawn the ire of Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef for urging his possible removal for allegedly breaching ethical guidelines that prohibit public servants from intervening in sensitive partisan issues and for controversial comments he made about women, Reform Judaism and the High Court.
Yosef, whose later father rabbi Ovadia Yosef was a founder of Shas and for years served as its spiritual leader, has accused Shoham of acting out personal motives and called for his removal. Yosef has been floated as a potential leader of Shas’s rabbinic leadership council when he steps down as chief Sephardic rabbi, which his father also served as.
There was no response from Likud or the ultra-Orthodox parties to the Walla report.
Also Tuesday, Labor party leader Merav Michaeli warned that eliminating the Law of Return’s so-called grandchild clause “will deal a fatal blow to the Jewish people.”
The clause allows anyone with a Jewish grandparent who doesn’t practice another religion to immigrate to Israel, even without being considered Jewish according to Orthodox beliefs.
Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox and far-right allies — and at least one Likud MK — have been calling to scrap the clause.
“The Law of Return is the gatekeeper of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. It is the door,” Michaeli said. “Why on earth does someone want to come and lock this door to half of the Jewish people? And along the way to also create a wedge that will be impossible to remove between the State of Israel and the global Jewish community, wherever they are.”
“Why on earth would someone want to do this terrible injustice to both the Jewish people and the State of Israel?” Michaeli said.
Despite the demand by its allies, Likud is reportedly expected to oppose a move to abolish the grandfather clause. Asked about potentially amending the Law of Return in a recent interview, Netanyahu said he “doubts” the law will be changed but did not explicitly rule it out.
Likud is the largest party in a right-religious bloc that won a majority of Knesset seats in the November 1 election and is now negotiating to form the next government, which Netanyahu is facing a December 21 deadline to finalize after President Isaac Herzog granted him additional time this week to cobble together a coalition.