Likud warns coalition row over draft bill ‘could bring government down’

Senior officials say chance of early elections growing, while education minister calls for squabbling MKs to leave egos at the door

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with police during a protest against the arrest of a religious seminary student who failed to comply with a recruitment order, next to the army draft office in Jerusalem, November 28, 2017. (Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with police during a protest against the arrest of a religious seminary student who failed to comply with a recruitment order, next to the army draft office in Jerusalem, November 28, 2017. (Flash90)

Senior officials in the ruling Likud party warned Thursday that coalition infighting over legislation exempting ultra-Orthodox students from military service could lead to the government’s collapse and bring early elections, Hadashot TV news reported.

“The Haredim have climbed very high up a tree, very much increasing the chance of elections,” the TV quoted the officials as saying.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett from the Jewish Home party called on coalition parties “to avoid unnecessary ego games” over the issue.

“There is a moderate and balanced solution to the draft law framework that will allow us to continue to manage the State of Israel,” Bennett said.

At issue is the form that new military draft legislation will take after the High Court of Justice in September threw out a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, on the grounds 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 ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties hold an emergency meeting at the Knesset regarding the Supreme Court’s decision on ultra-Orthodox exemptions from compulsory military service, September 13, 2017. (Flash90)

On Monday, the ultra-Orthodox parties submitted two bills on the military draft: The first, a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would enshrine long-term Torah study as a recognized form of official service to the state 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.

The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, has been formulating its own version of the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who leads the intensely secular Yisrael Beytenu party, saying that only the ministry’s proposal would receive the support of his lawmakers.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at a conference of local governments in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (Jorge Novominsky)

Writing on Facebook, he called the legislation proposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties a “draft dodging law” on Facebook.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have threatened to veto the 2019 state budget if the military draft bills are not passed, which would lead to the government’s collapse.

Amid the threats to the government’s stability, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed Wednesday to set up a committee made up of representatives from all six coalition parties to formulate a bill.

Extremist ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, protesting against the army draft, block the entrance to Jerusalem on November 26, 2017. (Flash90)

Earlier this month, UTJ and Shas reportedly threatened to bring down the government after Netanyahu told them he would not currently support a new version of the repealed military draft law.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has 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. After reaching the age of 18, men must serve for 32 months and women for 24.

Marissa Newman contributed to this report.

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