Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told fellow coalition party leaders Sunday that if the ultra-Orthodox parties don’t compromise on a military draft law within the next three weeks, he will call early elections, likely to be held early in 2019.
“We have to know where [United Torah Judaism party head Yaakov] Litzman stands on the draft issue,” Netanyahu told the 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.”
At the meeting, those in attendance — including Jewish Home chief Naftali Bennett, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, Shas’s Aryeh Deri and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni representing the party — agreed that if an agreement could not be reached on the draft bill by the next cabinet meeting, then that meeting will set the date of the next election. The next cabinet meeting is set for the beginning of September.
Two people notably missing from the meeting were Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who backs the plan put forward by the Defense Ministry and supported by much of the coalition, and Litzman himself, who in the past threatened to leave the government if the bill conscripting ultra-Orthodox seminary students to the army was passed.
The catalyst for the ultimatum was a High Court of Justice ruling last week that granted only a three-month extension on a deadline it had set for passing legislation on the issue. The state had requested a postponement of seven months from the original September deadline, but was granted less than half of that.
“After considering this matter, we decided to partially respond to the request and postpone the date… so that it will take effect on December 2, 2018,” the court said in its ruling.
In the days following the court ruling Netanyahu held private meetings with both Liberman and Litzman to try and reach a compromise.
In the past Liberman has said he would not support any changes to the current proposal.
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 new elections. Elections are currently scheduled to be held in November 2019.
Litzman said he did not want early elections but thought a compromise unlikely. However, he said, the rabbinic leaders of his community would make the decision on how to respond to the ultimatum.
“Approving a corrected draft bill was one of the central matters which formed the basis of the coalition and the present government,” he said according to the Ynet news site.
“We have no interest in elections but we will not be able to compromise on something as essential and fundamental as protecting the status of our seminary students who learn Torah full time. The various suggestions will be brought to the Council of Torah Sages to decide on the matter. Whatever they tell us is what we will do,” he said.
Last September, the High Court ruled that a 2015 version of Israel’s draft law granting most yeshiva students draft exemptions was unconstitutional, and gave lawmakers a year to institute new guidelines for ultra-Orthodox enlistment.
But the Knesset concluded its spring session on July 19, and will not reconvene for the fall session until mid-October.
Without the amended legislation in place, 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.
The contentious current version of the legislation, backed 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.
The current version 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.
It passed its first reading in the Knesset at the beginning of July, the first of three readings it must pass before becoming law.