Opposition party leaders rail against ‘draft dodgers bill’
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Opposition party leaders rail against ‘draft dodgers bill’

Zionist Union’s Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid say legislation negotiated at 11th hour exempts ultra-Orthodox from pulling their weight

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay, left, attending a news conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2017; Yair Lapid attending a conference in Herzliya, June 22, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90; Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)
Labor leader Avi Gabbay, left, attending a news conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2017; Yair Lapid attending a conference in Herzliya, June 22, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90; Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

The chairmen of the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid opposition factions railed on Monday against a conscription bill agreed upon by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties in a last-ditch effort to avoid new elections.

Speaking at their respective faction meetings, Avi Gabbay and Yair Lapid labeled the legislation “the draft dodgers bill,” charging that it allows people to avoid military service without consequences.

“The new conscription law is illegal, immoral, unprincipled and un-Israeli,” Gabbay said.

“Everyone needs to serve the country,” he declared. “You really think that we will accept our children standing in the same line to receive an apartment alongside those who don’t serve?”

The Zionist Union chairman went on to attack what he referred to as a “covenant of corruption” between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Speaking at the opening of his weekly faction meeting, Gabbay alleged that Netanyahu and Liberman have “played the rest of the coalition with spin and smokescreens.”

“Who would believe that all of the coalition parties would come begging to Netanyahu to ask him to stay prime minister with the huge weight of corruption accusation against him?” Gabbay asked. “Where is your backbone?”

The prime minister is beset by several corruption allegations, and his coalition partners have hinted that they would likely dismantle the government should he be indicted. Some of them have insinuated that Netanyahu orchestrated the latest crisis in order to call new elections as a referendum on his rule.

Ahead of his own faction meeting, Lapid told reporters that the bill is “a disgrace to the army.”

“The ultra-Orthodox will be made to conscript, unless they decide that they don’t want to,” he charged. “It is a disgrace to those who do serve.”

“First they tell us what is permitted and what is forbidden for us to do at home on Shabbat. Afterwards they transfer billions in indecent political deals. Now they inform us that the army — the IDF, the shield of Israel — is only for suckers prepared to endanger their lives and sacrifice their best years for the state,” Lapid continued.

While Lapid said clearly that “the time has come to replace the prime minister,” Gabbay was slightly less blunt.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Gabbay, whose popularity — unlike Lapid’s — has waned in recent months, said that while he is in favor of elections, he “will not let Netanyahu use us to set elections at a time that is good for him.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the coalition Jewish Home party, accused both Liberman and Lapid of disingenuously using the coalition crisis over the ultra-Orthodox draft to gain publicity.

“We said a week ago that it was a ‘fake crisis’ and we stand behind that,” Bennett told his faction ahead of its meeting at the Knesset.

“But beyond that, in recent days we have seen ‘fake leadership’ that prefers to stand behind publicity polls and populist stunts instead of doing what they know is right,” he added, referring to Liberman and Lapid, who have vehemently opposed the bill.

Arguing that the best way to encourage conscription in the ultra-Orthodox community is via a slow and gentle process of integration, Bennet held up a graph to show the increase over the past decade.

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Lapid knows this very well and so does Liberman, because it’s what the army says. We need to continue this process, not uproot it,” he said.

Bennett added that he “supports the prime minister’s efforts to end the crisis.”

The ultra-Orthodox coalition parties threatened last week to vote down the 2019 state budget unless legislation is approved this week exempting members of their communities from the military draft. The threat prompted a coalition crisis after Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister, threatened to quit his post and the coalition if the budget is not passed this week.

The game of brinkmanship has sparked the most severe coalition crisis yet for the three-year-old Netanyahu government, and at times on Sunday, snap elections as early as June seemed all but assured.

According to a reported 11th-hour deal brokered late Sunday night and meant to stave off early elections, Netanyahu agreed to push the conscription bill through the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and bring it to a preliminary plenum vote at the request of the ultra-Orthodox parties. The 2019 state budget would then be approved with those parties’ support, as Kahlon has been demanding, and the bill would then be shelved until the Knesset’s summer session.

Kulanu has refused to support the law in the plenum vote if Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu doesn’t vote for it as well, the Haaretz daily reported, making Liberman’s support crucial to maintaining the coalition.

The bill passed its first legislative hurdle on Monday, though it wasn’t initially clear whether that reflected an agreement between coalition partners.

Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the legislation, but it was reportedly opposed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who said he could not defend its current wording in the High Court of Justice.

However, Yisrael Beytenu, the draft bill’s most vociferous opponent, signaled Monday that it opposes the compromise deal.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu) filed an appeal with the cabinet against the bill, meaning that either the ministerial committee will have to reconvene or the cabinet will be forced to cancel her appeal. Coalition parties may appeal a decision made by the committee and demand it be brought before the cabinet for a vote by all government ministers. That vote was expected to take place over the phone on Monday afternoon.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation includes ministers from Yisrael Beytenu, but party members on Monday said they would oppose the bill when it comes up for a preliminary vote in the parliament plenum.

A Knesset statement said the legislation process would continue in coordination with the Defense Ministry and the attorney general. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has also said that promotion of the conscription bill would be coordinated with Liberman.

Mandelblit is expected to oppose the deal, Hebrew-language media reported Monday, since the conscription law meant to be promoted according to the compromise isn’t the one he coordinated with Shaked.

The attorney general is expected to only agree to defend the law in court after the Justice Ministry changes it, the reports said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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