Netanyahu, Levin said to seek pause to overhaul after Haredi party revolt

Likud, UTJ deny reports on potential freeze, say they are working together to pass judicial legislative package, ultra-Orthodox draft law

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu with UTJ MK Moshe Gafni at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu with UTJ MK Moshe Gafni at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners are looking to freeze their divisive push to overhaul the judiciary, amid rising concerns among Haredi leaders about the cost to society and to their constituents, according to Hebrew media reports Tuesday.

Kikar Hashabat, a prominent Haredi news site, reported that United Torah Judaism, an Ashkenazi Haredi party with seven lawmakers whose support is crucial to Netanyahu’s hard-right, Likud-led coalition, demanded that the entire legislative process to curb the powers of the judiciary be halted indefinitely and only be advanced if there is broad agreement with the opposition.

Citing the head of one of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset factions, the report (Hebrew link) said Haredi coalition partners are deeply troubled by Netanyahu’s conduct and feel he’s trying to deflect the fierce criticism and opposition to the overhaul onto the Haredi community, including by issuing a statement against recent incidents of discrimination against women by ultra-Orthodox bus drivers and passengers, and against the backdrop of efforts to pass a bill regulating military exemptions for Haredi men.

According to the report, the demand for a freeze stems from concerns by Haredi leaders that the current outline of the overhaul — a highly controversial plan to weaken the judiciary and transfer some of its power to the executive and legislative branches — promises too few benefits to justify exposing their constituents to hostility by the overhaul’s opponents, and its divisive effects on Israeli society more broadly.

The report said the Haredi parties believe the overhaul has divided Israelis too much and are even willing to see Justice Minister Yariv Levin — the architect of the overhaul — quit his post, as he’s threatened to do if the bills aren’t advanced at a quick enough pace.

The report added that if more overhaul bills are brought for votes without the agreement of the opposition, the Haredi parties will vote against them.

Israel Hayom reported that Netanyahu and Levin were looking into freezing the overhaul for a year with a goal to calm the anti-overhaul movement and create the atmosphere needed to pass the controversial law regulating military draft exemptions for Haredi men.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum during a vote on the coalition’s ‘reasonableness’ bill, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox parties have demanded the passage of the law on the basis of a Likud promise in the coalition agreements. In recent days, Likud officials have reportedly told the Haredi parties that the public atmosphere is too volatile to legislate that law.

Following the reports Tuesday, the Likud party and the leaders of UTJ’s two factions, Yitzhak Goldknopf and Moshe Gafni, issued a joint statement denying that Netanyahu is seeking a one-year suspension of the overhaul legislation following the reported Haredi revolt.

“As opposed to what is being reported, all coalition heads are working in full cooperation to pass both the [ultra-Orthodox] enlistment law and the judicial reform,” the statement said.

Contacted by The Times of Israel for a reaction, Yaakov Morgewasser, the spokesperson of Gafni, declined to confirm or deny the news. United Torah Judaism “is not commenting,” he said.

A spokesperson for Shas, a Haredi Sephardic party, sidestepped the issue in his response. Party leader Aryeh Deri “shares in the prime minister’s efforts and is working with him to further the legislation of the overhaul through consent, out of the hope that the other side would find a responsible person willing to make agreements,” the party’s statement read.

According to the Israel Hayom report, Levin and Netanyahu are discussing a potential one-year moratorium plan with President Isaac Herzog, who previously hosted now-defunct compromise talks with opposition members.

United Torah Judaism has insisted in recent weeks that the coalition pass an override clause, which would enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws even if they are struck down by the High Court of Justice. This is of interest to Haredi parties because the court has in recent years nixed several initiatives on key issues for Haredi voters, including the exemption from military service enjoyed by yeshiva students under 26.

The judicial overhaul plan — and in particular the override clause — has been met with months of protest demonstrations by critics who say it will dangerously erode Israel’s democratic nature.

Protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul plans light a fire at Karkur Junction, in northern Israel, August 12, 2023. (Amos Gil)

Netanyahu last month said in an interview that the override clause is off the table.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice invalidated the current conscription law, which gives sweeping exemptions to full-time religious scholars. It gave the government a series of deadlines and extensions by which time it was to legislate a new enlistment law, and allowed the Defense Ministry to rely upon the current, struck-down law until a replacement is passed. The government’s 15th, and current, extension to legislate a solution expired at the end of July.

As a preemptive move, the government in June approved a decision enabling the military to continue excusing ultra-Orthodox Israelis from the IDF draft.

Last month, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers also presented a bill to enshrine the value of Torah study in a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, as a way to further cement military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men — but the legislation was quickly shot down by the Likud party amid ferocious backlash following the passage of the reasonableness law.

The bill, submitted by UTJ members, defines Torah study as a core state value, elevating it to be roughly on par with serving in the armed forces, which is mandatory for most Israelis.

Following the Likud disavowal, UTJ issued its own statement saying the bill was based on coalition agreements and “was prepared at the time by us as part of the overall solution” to the subject of Haredi conscription.

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