Ministers approve conscription bill as Yisrael Beytenu tries to halt move

In bid to prevent early elections, committee gives initial approval to law demanded by ultra-Orthodox; Yisrael Beytenu minister appeals against measure

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (R) attend a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 21, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (R) attend a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 21, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

A bill proposing to exempt members of the ultra-Orthodox community from conscription to the IDF, which is at the center of a fierce government crisis that could lead to early elections, passed its first legislative hurdle on Monday, though it wasn’t initially clear whether that reflected an agreement between coalition partners.

The Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the law, pushed by the ultra-Orthodox parties but opposed by both Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and, reportedly, by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who said he could not defend its current wording in the High Court of Justice.

Yisrael Beytenu Minister Sofa Landver filed an appeal with the cabinet against the bill, meaning either the committee will need to meet again or the cabinet will need to cancel her appeal. Coalition parties may appeal a decision made by the committee and demand it be brought before the cabinet for a vote by all government ministers. That vote is expected to take place over the phone in the next few hours.

According to a reported 11th-hour deal brokered Sunday night and meant to stave off early elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to push the conscription bill through the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and bring it to a preliminary plenum vote at the request of the ultra-Orthodox parties. 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.

However, the Yisrael Beytenu party headed by Liberman, who has been the IDF draft bill’s most vocal opponent, signaled Monday that it opposes the compromise deal.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, February 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation includes ministers from Yisrael Beytenu, but party members on Monday said it would oppose the bill when it comes up for a preliminary vote in the parliament plenum.

A Knesset statement said the legislation process would continue with coordination with the Defense Ministry and the attorney general. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has also said that promotion of the conscription bill would be coordinated with Liberman.

Kahlon’s Kulanu party has refused to support the law if Yisrael Beytenu doesn’t vote for it as well, the Haaretz daily reported, making Liberman’s party’s support crucial to maintaining the coalition.

Mandelblit is reportedly 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 Shaked.

The attorney general is expected to only agree to defend the law in court after the Justice Ministry changes it, the reports said.

“Senior sources in the coalition” were quoted as saying the law is to undergo major changes before it is voted upon in second and third readings, which are the final hurdle for a bill before it becomes law.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked gives a statement to the media in Jerusalem, February 26, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The law approved in preliminary reading will only be a platform which is subject to change, the sources added.

Oded Forer, a lawmaker from the Yisrael Beytenu party, said on Monday that his faction would continue to fight against any bill not supported by the Defense Ministry, headed by Liberman.

“We will oppose the conscription law,” Forer told Israel Radio. “There is no room for compromise at the expense of the security of Israel at the whim of some rabbi.”

Robert Ilatov, another MK from the party, also told the Keshet TV channel that the party would oppose the bill and appeal to have it struck down, adding that the compromise deal was “irrelevant.”

Liberman has yet to officially respond to the deal.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer attends a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The ultra-Orthodox coalition parties threatened last week to vote down the 2019 state budget unless legislation is approved this week exempting members of their communities from the military draft. The threat prompted a coalition crisis after Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister, threatened to quit his post and the coalition if the budget is not passed this week.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said that a coalition without Yisrael Beytenu, which would have a razor-thin majority of 61 lawmakers out of 120, was “not an option.”

Liberman and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) head Yaakov Litzman met with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office Sunday night, followed by Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon. The round of meetings seemed to mark a shift from earlier in the day, when the coalition party leaders were entrenched in their positions and refusing to compromise.

The Council of Torah Sages, a panel of rabbis that holds sway over several members of UTJ, approved the understanding with Netanyahu, reports said. But the deal still requires the assent of Kahlon, as well as that of Liberman, who has insisted throughout the crisis that he would not support any version of the conscription bill that is not drafted by his own ministry and the IDF.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during a vote in the Knesset on February 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

The crisis persisted despite an overnight summit between Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers late Saturday, in which Netanyahu presented his conditions for ending the standoff: full agreement from the ultra-Orthodox on a compromise version of a new draft bill, a commitment from Liberman to let the bill pass in parliament, and a commitment from Kahlon to vote in favor.

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.

Earlier Sunday, Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett, the education minister, said he would rethink support for the prime minister if early elections were called over Netanyahu’s legal woes.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018.(Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

For his part, Netanyahu insisted throughout Sunday that he wished to avoid early elections. “We are working toward a stable government that will continue until the end of its term in November 2019,” he told his Knesset faction.

“In order for that to happen,” the prime minister said, “all of the factions must come to an agreement and decide to continue together. We are working to try and achieve this because Israeli citizens want a stable government that will last its intended time.”

Ultra-Orthodox Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, the interior minister, said Sunday that given the opposition within the coalition to the conscription bill, Netanyahu’s conditions prove that he wants elections and that negotiations are a waste of time, Army Radio reported.

Kahlon, meanwhile, made clear his Kulanu party’s willingness to go to early polls. The defection of its 10 MKs would mean the end of the coalition. Asked on his way to the cabinet meeting Sunday morning about the possibility of the government dissolving due to the crisis, he said: “We are ready for elections. Of course.”

Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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