Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday indicated that if he is re-elected he will act to remove legislation that allows for the jailing of ultra-Orthodox men who refuse to show up for their national service — a move that drew praise from ultra-Orthodox parties who may be key players in Netanyahu’s next coalition.
The revelation came as the prime minister hosted a group of journalists from the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi community, in a meet-the-press event at his residence in Jerusalem.
During the meeting Netanyahu declared that he intends to include the Haredi parties in a future government, giving them a seat at the table after they were frozen out of the previous coalition, mainly due to the success of the Yesh Atid party.
After the event ended, during an informal chat with some of the ultra-Orthodox reporters, the prime minister was reportedly asked if he would cancel controversial criminal sanctions in the so-called universal draft law that aims to ensure Haredi men are drafted into the army or other national service.
“The idea that people sit in prison over their faith is unthinkable,” Netanyahu replied, according to Hebrew media reports, and indicated that he would accede to ultra-Orthodox demands that the sanctions be revoked.
The universal draft law resulted from a determined drive by the Yesh Atid party during the previous government to see the Haredi community compelled into doing national service, and included articles enabling the imprisonment of those who fail to turn up for their service.
On Monday, four Haredi men were released after spending nearly a month in prison for refusing to turn up for army service. Thousands turned out to celebrate their release and demonstrated against the draft law.
Some 50 men were arrested in demonstrations against the draft in recent weeks in Jerusalem, Ashdod, Elad and the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak.
IDF service has long been rejected by the ultra-Orthodox community, which enjoyed sweeping exemptions until the draft law was passed last year.
Knesset member Eli Yishai, chairman of the newly formed Yachad party, which splintered from the ultra-Orthodox Shas, welcomed Netanyahu’s remarks.
“The Yesh Atid party, with its brutality, brought hatred and a rift among the people, reducing the motivation to join the Nahal Haredi unit, according to the defense minister’s [own] statistics,” he said, referencing an infantry unit that caters to the religious needs of ultra-Orthdox conscripts.
Yesh Atid accused the prime minister of self-serving maneuvering.
“Netanyahu has proved once again that the only thing on his mind is his own political survival,” the party said in a statement.
Recent polls have shown the three ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas, Yachad and United Torah Judaism — winning some 18 Knesset seats in the Knesset elections on March 17, thus having a strong bargaining position in coalition talks should Netanyahu’s Likud party be tapped to lead.
Israel Radio reported Wednesday that the Haredi parties are expected to announce in the coming days their intention to recommend Netanyahu, who leads the Likud party, as their candidate of choice to form the next coalition after the elections.
Under Israeli law, following an election the president accepts recommendations from each of the factions that win seats as to which party leader has the best chances of forming a stable government. The recommendations are crucial in that they decide which of the prime ministerial hopefuls gets the first shot at forming a government.