'I don’t get Netanyahu. Does he want to look so ridiculous?'

Netanyahu’s Haredi allies turn up heat, reiterate demand for military exemption law

UTJ minister Porush tells PM to go home if he can’t keep coalition deal vow to pass law before budget approval; fellow MK threatens party may avoid voting for crucial state budget

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism MKs Yisrael Eichler, center and Meir Porush in the Knesset, January 25, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism MKs Yisrael Eichler, center and Meir Porush in the Knesset, January 25, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Ultra-Orthodox coalition politicians escalated their rhetoric Tuesday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the lack of progress in passing a law for ultra-Orthodox military service exemptions, with one minister saying Netanyahu should leave office if he can’t keep his promises, and a lawmaker warning his faction could end up not supporting the state budget, which would automatically topple the coalition.

United Torah Judaism (UTJ) MK Moshe Roth told The Times of Israel that the leading rabbis of Agudath Yisrael, the Hasidic faction within the party, were frustrated with the failure to pass the law until now, noting that the coalition agreement between UTJ and Likud includes a clear pledge to approve such legislation before the budget is passed.

Although the government has a majority of 64 MKs in the 120-member Knesset and Agudath Yisrael has only three Knesset members, the four MKs of Degel Hatorah, the party’s non-Hasidic faction, could end up joining their colleagues, posing a severe threat to the government which must pass a budget by May 29 in order to prevent the Knesset from being automatically dissolved, with national elections called.

The right-wing, religious coalition is seeking to pass legislation that would lower the age after which men are exempt from military service from 26 to 21 years old.

The current age of exemption has prevented yeshiva students from entering the workforce until after the age of 26, even if they were no longer interested in continuing with their religious studies.

The security establishment opposes such a stark drop in the age and analysts speculate that the sides will have to meet somewhere in the middle.

Roth said the issue of military conscription was critical to the rabbinic leadership of Agudath Yisrael.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Roth attends a party faction meeting in the Knesset, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The leaders of Agudat Yisrael expect the agreement to be kept,” Roth said. “We are annoyed and disappointed that [the military service exemption laws] have not been done yet because we expect agreements to be kept.”

Roth, the Agudath Yisrael representative of the Sanz Hasidic community, acknowledged that it is now impossible to pass such a complex law within the three weeks before the budget deadline on May 29, but said that his party expected concrete measures from Netanyahu and the government on the matter in order for them to vote for the budget.

Such measures, he said, would likely need to include the submission of a draft bill on the issue, which has yet to be drawn up, as well a statement on the timetable for the final passage of the law.

“We definitely expect [Netanyahu’s] Likud [party] to make some kind of advancement in this matter. If that happens, then the budget will go through. If there is no advancement whatsoever, Agudat Yisrael will not vote with the government, which means the government could fall,” said Roth.

The coalition agreement between UTJ and Likud stipulates that a Basic Law be passed before the budget is passed, enshrining Torah study as “a foundational value in the heritage of the Jewish people,” as well as legislation allowing for blanket exemptions from IDF service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzchak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The demand for the Basic Law on Torah study is designed to prevent the High Court of Justice from striking down the blanket exemptions law, as it has done on three occasions in the past on the basis that such exemptions violate the principle of equality for all citizens, since all other Jewish men are obligated to perform military service.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush placed the blame for the failure to pass these laws squarely at Netanyahu’s door.

“Why did we sign coalition agreements? So they won’t happen?” Porush said in an interview with Haredi news site Kikar HaShabbat. “I don’t get Netanyahu. How ridiculous does he want to look?”

The ultra-Orthodox minister also pointed to his party’s demand for a so-called override clause allowing the Knesset to re-legislate legislation struck down by the High Court of Justice, or shielding certain bills from High Court review from the outset.

Porush described his party’s demand for an override clause as a “full-on” override, in an apparent reference to a requirement for just 61 MKs to be able to activate the override, and explained that UTJ spiritual leaders would not have agreed to sign off on the coalition deal without such a pledge.

The override clause, part of the government’s deeply controversial judicial overhaul plan, is seen by the ultra-Orthodox parties as a further necessity to ensure that the military service exemptions become a permanent fixture of Israeli law. Critics say it would undermine Israel’s democratic foundations by handing the government unrestrained powers.

Ultra-Orthodox men clash with police in Jerusalem as they protest against the arrest of members of the community who failed to comply with their army draft, September 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Why did I bother helping create this coalition, to hear the same excuses from Treasury officials we got in the [Naftali] Bennett-[Yair] Lapid era? Why did we bother having elections?” he added, referring to the previous government and saying the current Finance Ministry has continued its pushback over Haredi demands for additional funding for ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.

“When will we be able to stop being afraid [of complying with laws regarding mandatory service]? And if we must be afraid, then Netanyahu must say he cannot be prime minister because ‘I cannot give you what you need’ — he should say that,” Porush said.

“Netanyahu cannot say ‘I can’t.’ You can’t? So don’t be prime minister. What is this? Go home,” he fumed.

Degel Hatorah is believed to be more pragmatic on the timetable for passing the military service exemption laws, although a spokesman for faction chairman MK Moshe Gafni said the party was not commenting on the issue at the present.

Likud has been seeking to delay passing the law, fearing additional public pushback if it works to pass unpopular legislation after losing significant support over the manner in which it has advanced the judicial overhaul, which has now been paused to allow for ongoing compromise talks with the opposition.

Head of the Finance Committee MK Moshe Gafni and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a hearing on the state budget in the Knesset Finance Committee, April 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

More importantly, Netanyahu’s party fears it won’t have time to pass a budget by the end of the month if it adds further items to the agenda.

Speaking about the principle of Haredi military service exemptions, Roth argued that Torah study was a fundamental element in preserving religious observance and ultimately in the justification for the Jewish people’s right to inhabit the land of Israel.

“We as the Jewish people have our crown jewels and that is the Torah, which has been with us for 3,500 years,” said Roth.

“Without the Torah, there is no Israel at all. Why else did we come back to this ancient land called the land of Israel? Who gave it to us, under which law is this land ours? It all comes back to the Torah… Our only right to the Land of Israel is because of our Torah,” he continued.

Roth claimed that the Israel Defense Forces has no immediate need for extra manpower, and alleged that opponents to blanket exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, such as Opposition Leader Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, are motivated by political gain rather than principled concern for the IDF requirements.

“People gain political power by using this issue. Politicians are against the law not for practical reasons or philosophical reasons or even defense reasons. The only reason they are against it is that people like Lapid and Liberman gain a political advantage by using this issue,” claimed Roth.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study in the Lithuanian Slabodka yeshiva in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, July 8, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Asked why the ultra-Orthodox community cannot emulate the combined Torah study and military service model used by the religious Zionist community through the hesder yeshiva program, Roth contended that the latter did not produce Torah scholars of sufficient quality.

“How many Torah scholars have come out of the hesder yeshivas, and how many have come from the yeshivas which don’t combine Torah study and army service? There’s no comparison between the two systems,” argued the lawmaker.

Asked if all ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students become great Torah scholars, Roth conceded that some students may eventually be more suited to other endeavors, but insisted that “the years between the age of 17 and 22 have to be dedicated entirely for Torah study,” and that only after that age should the question of whether or not to continue in yeshiva be addressed.

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