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Netanyahu calls on ultra-Orthodox to back enlistment law, preserve coalition

PM says latest proposal ‘a good and balanced law’; rejects suggestion he may use crisis as an excuse to call early elections

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on October 14, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Yedioth Ahronoth/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on October 14, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Yedioth Ahronoth/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called for ultra-Orthodox leaders to back the latest version of the military enlistment bill, saying that he wanted to retain the current coalition and did not believe the government should be dissolved over the issue of Haredi conscription.

“This is a good and balanced law,” Netanyahu said of the bill, which would set yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox enlistment while formalizing exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students. “It balances between the needs of the military, which prepared it, and, of course, the needs of the ultra-Orthodox public.”

The contentious legislation, written by the Defense Ministry, sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas, or rabbinical seminaries, where they study.

While the bill passed its first reading in the Knesset at the beginning of July, it must be finalized in its third reading by a Supreme Court-imposed deadline of December 2. If new legislation is not voted into law, current deferral regulations would expire with the deadline and thousands of yeshiva students would find themselves unable to renew their deferments, making them eligible to be drafted by the IDF.

Factions of the ultra orthodox community Shas Council of Torah Sages, Hassidic Agudat Yisrael and Lithuanian Degel Hatorah meet in Bnei Brak ahead of a mass rally against the military draft bill, February 24, 2014. (Photo by FLASH90)

Netanyahu’s comments came ahead of a meeting by the United Torah Judaism’s Council of Torah Sages on whether the party will accept the proposal or oppose it and almost certainly bring down the government. If the ultra-Orthodox parties left the coalition, the government would not have a majority, forcing Netanyahu to either bring opposition parties into his government or head to early elections. Elections are currently scheduled to be held in November 2019.

Crucially, if new elections were called, the Supreme Court would be forced to extend the deadline for passing the new legislation.

The current version of the bill sets the target for ultra-Orthodox recruits for 2018 at just below 4,000 recruits, with that number increasing by 8 percent per year for three years, 6.5% for the three years after that and 5% for a further four years. If 95% of the targets are not met, sanctions in the form of cuts to state funding allocated to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas would be put in place, increasing each year the targets are missed.

United Torah Judaism’s Council of Torah Sages is reportedly split, with the rabbis from the Lithuanian sect, linked to the Degel Hatorah faction, leaning toward accepting the proposal while the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael rabbis continue to oppose it. (Party chairman Ya’akov Litzman is a Gur Hasid who has said his opposition to the latest version of the enlistment bill is due to his rabbi’s rejection of the text.)

Netanyahu urged the rabbis to put their disagreements aside and back the bill.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-L), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (3rd-R) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2nd-L) attend a conference in Lod on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“This law needs to pass. The time has come to put it behind us. This is my position. This also needs to be the position of the government, for the good of the country, of the ultra-Orthodox public, and for relations between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular,” he said. “Therefore, I call on the Council of Torah Sages, which is convening today, to make the right decision. This law is good for Israel.”

Netanyahu also rejected the suggestion that he could use the crisis as an excuse to call elections, saying that he wants the bill to pass and the coalition to remain united “because its a good coalition and should be preserved.”

Netanyahu told fellow coalition party leaders in August that if the ultra-Orthodox parties don’t compromise on passing the military draft law, he would call early elections.

“We have to know where Litzman stands on the draft issue,” Netanyahu told his top ministers. “The ball is in Litzman’s court. If the ultra-Orthodox parties want to reach a compromise, we can get through this. We have to find out if they want that.”

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