Netanyahu vows to push ahead with ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill

Netanyahu vows to push ahead with ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill

Defense Ministry’s proposal will come up for its first of three votes as early as next week, PM says, adding that he seeks ‘broad agreement’ on the final law

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University on June 20, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University on June 20, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A controversial bill that seeks to settle once and for all the issue of IDF enlistment by the ultra-Orthodox is slated to come up for its first vote in the Knesset plenum as early as next week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday.

The contentious legislation is the product of a Defense Ministry committee report published earlier this month. The ministry called the framework “a durable, realistic and relevant arrangement” for ultra-Orthodox conscription. The proposal 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.

Netanyahu’s Haredi coalition partners, the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, have threatened to oppose the legislation if it advances, and even to destabilize the coalition, in order to torpedo the measure.

On Sunday, in a meeting with coalition party leaders, Netanyahu insisted that the bill would move forward to a first or plenum vote, but that “after the first reading, there will be a discussion between all parts of the coalition toward a broad agreement for the second and third readings.”

He brushed off the Haredi threats to the coalition, saying, “I don’t want elections, but I’m not afraid of elections. If there are elections, I’ll be okay.”

A bill must pass all three votes in the plenum to become law.

At Sunday’s meeting, the heads of both Haredi parties, Shas’s Aryeh Deri and UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman, reiterated their opposition to the bill.

“As we’ve said [when the Defense Ministry proposal first came out], we see in Torah study a supreme value for the Jewish people, and will insist that every student of Torah is able to concentrate on his studies without interruption,” Deri said.

With that, both Shas and UTJ have only vowed to oppose the “current version” of the bill, but have not said they are opposed in principle to its underlying framework.

Last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party expressed support for the bill.

“I think this is the most balanced, nonpartisan law and I very much hope that we will bring it next week to debate at the special Knesset committee and pass it by the end of the summer session in its second and third readings,” Liberman said.

In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down a previous law exempting ultra-Orthodox men who were engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermined the principle of equality before the law. However, the court suspended its decision for a year to allow for a new arrangement to be put in place, giving the government the option to pass a new law by September 1, 2018.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has long been a contentious one in Israel, revolving around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas should be called up for compulsory military service, like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman arrives at the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 15, 2017. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

United Torah Judaism’s Litzman said earlier this month that if an ultra-Orthodox-backed proposal dealing with the community’s conscription is not passed into law by July 22, when the Knesset summer recess begins, the party will leave the government, likely spelling its untimely end.

But Litzman represents the Hasidic half of the UTJ party. The Lithuanian half, headed by MK Moshe Gafni, has been careful to avoid such pronouncements, as has Shas.

After a similar ultimatum was made by Litzman during the Knesset’s winter session, coalition partners reached a last-minute agreement to delay passing a final law until the current summer session. But a final compromise agreement has been elusive, with Liberman vowing that his staunchly secular party would not fold in the face of demands made by the ultra-Orthodox.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have submitted two parallel bills on the military draft. The first, a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would enshrine long-term Torah study as a recognized form of national service in lieu of military service. The second bill would force the Defense Ministry to grant deferrals to yeshiva students, and refers back to the proposed Basic Law repeatedly in defending the arrangements.

The March deal delayed action on the issue, until the Defense Ministry presented its recommendations, which happened in the beginning of June.

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