PM, ultra-Orthodox said cooperating to pass enlistment bill, set early elections
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PM, ultra-Orthodox said cooperating to pass enlistment bill, set early elections

Heads of UTJ, Shas reportedly feel leaving coalition over bill would boost secularist Yesh Atid party in polls

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been holding secret talks with leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties, who have agreed not to bring down the government over the controversial IDF enlistment bill, the Maariv newspaper reported Friday. Instead, the prime minister will reportedly announce early elections once a softened version of the legislation has passed.

According to the report, neither side wants the government to fall over the bill, because of fears it would boost Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which has campaigned strongly in favor of drafting the ultra-Orthodox community.

Netanyahu is also said to be concerned that a national election campaign in the near future could harm Likud’s showing in October’s municipal elections throughout the country.

The report said that despite their protestations and threats, the ultra-Orthodox parties realize that if the conscription bill doesn’t pass they will be handing votes to Lapid and likely weakening their bargaining position in the next government.

Announcing elections for the first half of 2019, after a softened enlistment bill passes, could instead allow both Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties to claim to their respective constituents that they had won a victory.

Elections are not due until the end of October 2019, but a senior political source told Maariv that talks between the prime minister and the ultra-Orthodox parties have been taking place over the past few weeks to work out a preferred earlier date.

Deputy 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)

According to the report, MK Moshe Gafni, head of the Degel Hatorah faction of the United Torah Judaism party, wants elections to be held in mid-March, while Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, head of the party’s Hasidic faction, prefers they take place in May.

The most recent proposal sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas 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 the targets are not met by at least 95%, 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.

Soldiers study religious texts in the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox ‘Netzah Yehuda’ unit at the Peles Military Base in the northern Jordan valley, August 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The ultra-Orthodox parties seek to remove the sanctions from the legislation and delay implementation of the law for the next three years.

The draft 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.

Earlier this week, in a meeting with coalition party leaders, Netanyahu insisted that the bill would move forward to a first reading at the plenum, 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.”

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

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri (right) speaks with United Torah Judaism leader MK Yaakov Litzman (left) during the opening session of the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

At Sunday’s meeting, the heads of both ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas’s Aryeh Deri and UTJ’s 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.

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.

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.

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