‘New defense minister needs time’: Coalition seeks delay on conscription bill

Party leaders agree to submit request to High Court, amid uncertainty over whether highly contentious legislation can pass by next week

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on November 18, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on November 18, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The government is reportedly planning to tell the High Court of Justice that having only recently appointed himself defense minister, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs more time to review the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment before a new law on the issue can be passed.

Coalition heads agreed on Sunday to ask the court to further extend the deadline it set to pass a new law on the ultra-Orthodox draft to the Israel Defense Forces, and to claim that a postponement was “logical and legitimate” given that Netanyahu has only been serving as defense minister for a week, the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily reported on Monday.

Last September, the High Court ruled that a 2015 version of Israel’s draft law granting most yeshiva students exemptions from service was unconstitutional, and gave lawmakers a year to institute new guidelines for ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

The court later gave Netanyahu’s government until December 2 to pass an amended version of the bill regulating IDF enlistment. If new legislation is not voted into law, current deferral regulations will expire with the deadline, and thousands of yeshiva students will find themselves unable to renew their deferments, making them eligible to be drafted by the IDF.

The chairman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, informed Sunday’s cabinet meeting that an earlier decision by his party’s rabbinical council meant that if the latest proposal for a new version of the bill is passed into law, he and fellow faction member Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush would be forced to resign, Yisrael Hayom reported.

Netanyahu is reportedly confident that he can pass that version of the bill even without the support of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, by banking on the support of the secularist opposition parties Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu, both of which supported the legislation in its initial Knesset vote. But he does not want to risk losing coalition partners and potentially bringing down his government.

The coalition heads therefore decided to ask for an extension to the High Court deadline so that Litzman can seek rabbinical permission to pass the bill with some minor changes. “It’s mainly to gain a bit of breathing room to see what the options are for the Haredim,” a source present at the cabinet meeting was quoted by the paper as saying.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest against the army draft, at the entrance to Jerusalem on March 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The contentious legislation, written by the Defense Ministry, would set 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. At the same time, it would also formalize exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.

Many in the ultra-Orthodox community eschew the mandatory military service that applies to most Israelis, and the community has historically enjoyed blanket exemptions from the army in favor of religious seminary studies.

Despite offering initial support, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu may wish to capitalize on the coalition’s vulnerable status — reduced to the minimal majority of 61 MKs after Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman resigned earlier this month as defense minister and withdrew his party from the coalition — and oppose the bill in a move that could topple the government.

Both Liberman and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid have said that they will not support any changes to the current version of the bill, suggesting that even minor amendments put forward by the Untied Torah Judaism leadership would be rejected.

Lapid on Sunday slammed the intention to request a delay, saying the only purpose was for Netanyahu to “preserve his seat.”

“The enlistment law can be passed this week,” he said in a statement. “Netanyahu capitulates to the ultra-Orthodox time and time again.”

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