Rivlin urges dialogue to defuse coalition crisis over draft law

Rivlin urges dialogue to defuse coalition crisis over draft law

President says continued infighting over ultra-Orthodox army exemption will deepen tensions between religious and secular

President Reuven Rivlin (C) attends a conference of the Israel Press Council in the city of Lod, on March 4, 2018. (Avi Dishi/ Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin (C) attends a conference of the Israel Press Council in the city of Lod, on March 4, 2018. (Avi Dishi/ Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday called for increased dialogue and understanding between opposing coalition parties, to prevent elections over a push by ultra-Orthodox parties to pass legislation that would exempt yeshiva students from the military draft.

“This is not the first government to be threatened by this issue,” Rivlin said during an address to the Israel Press Council.

But, he continued, “we will not be able to solve the issue of conscription with force, but only through agreement. If we cannot agree to tackle the disagreement with dialogue then the issue will continue to destabilize the political system and deepen the tension between different sectors of society.”

Rivlin called on the parties to see the disagreement “not as one between those who hate the army on one hand and those who hate the Torah on the other, but between Israelis who all respect both the army and Torah study.”

Ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have threatened to vote down the 2019 budget unless legislation is approved exempting members of their community from the draft, a move that would bring down the current government.

On Friday, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon threatened to pull his Kulanu party out of the government if next year’s budget is not brought to a vote in the next two weeks as planned, a move that would also lead to the government’s collapse.

Kahlon, whose Kulanu party’s 10 seats are vital to the coalition’s majority, promised in a statement to “fight to the end” for the budget.

His ultimatum to Netanyahu came amid growing coalition sparring over the military draft legislation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at a special cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 11, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Ministers are working on a compromise that would see a draft exemption bill debated — and presumably passed — by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation before the Knesset begins discussing the 2019 budget. Under the proposal, the bill will not be voted upon in the plenum until after the budget has been passed.

The compromise is intended to reassure the ultra-Orthodox parties that the bill will at least begin advancing through the system before the Knesset’s summer recess.

At issue is the form that new military draft legislation will take, after the High Court of Justice in September threw out a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, on the grounds that it undermined the principle of equality before the law.

The court afforded the government a year to put into place a new arrangement, giving it the opportunity to pass a new law.

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

The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, has been working on its own proposal for the ultra-Orthodox draft, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — who leads the intensely secular Yisrael Beytenu party — saying that only the ministry’s proposal would receive the support of his lawmakers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night said there was “no reason” to go to early elections over the brewing coalition crisis.

“There is no reason for us to go to early elections, and with goodwill, that will not happen,” Netanyahu told reporters, ahead of his departure to Washington for a week-long trip. He predicted the government would survive through November 2019, when elections are currently scheduled to be held.

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