State seeks four-month delay on legislating ultra-Orthodox enlistment

Government says further postponement needed after Liberman’s resignation caused ‘turmoil in the coalition’ and left it with razor-thin majority

A member of the Israeli mounted police unit tries to disperse a demonstration of ultra-Orthodox men protesting against the arrest of a draft dodger in Jerusalem on August 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)
A member of the Israeli mounted police unit tries to disperse a demonstration of ultra-Orthodox men protesting against the arrest of a draft dodger in Jerusalem on August 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

The government asked the High Court of Justice on Tuesday to further extend by four months the deadline the court set to pass a new law regulating the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox men in the military.

The request for a delay came after Avigdor Liberman resigned as defense minister earlier this month, pulling his Yisrael Beytenu party out of the government and leaving the coalition with the minimum majority of 61 out of 120 total Knesset seats.

Liberman has been a vocal supporter of a Defense Ministry-drafted bill setting 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.

In its request to the High Court, the government said Liberman’s resignation “led to turmoil in the coalition” and that it no longer has sufficient support to pass the law in its current form.

It further said the delay was necessary to “avoid a situation of a ‘normative vacuum’ on a particularly sensitive issue” in Israeli society.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-L), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (3rd-R) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2nd-L) attend a conference in Lod on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government until December 2 to pass an amended version of the bill regulating 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 military.

Following the submission of the request, Liberman said the High Court should not delay the deadline “by even an hour,” noting that, in addition to most coalition lawmakers, the opposition Yesh Atid party has said it will support the bill.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (R) and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman hold a joint press conference at the Knesset on February 29, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The request only derives from political considerations — political survival does not justify harming the state’s security,” the Kan public broadcaster quoted him saying.

Lapid, a longtime proponent of drafting seminary students into the IDF, accused Netanyahu of “surrendering to the ultra-Orthodox and fleeing to the High Court.”

Though Lapid has said Yesh Atid would support the current bill, allowing it to pass without ultra-Orthodox support if the rest of the coalition and Yisrael Beytenu vote for it, on Monday he called on Netanyahu to guarantee yeshivas sanctioned under the law won’t receive financial compensation

“Whoever doesn’t enlist will pay,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “That’s the law.”

On Wednesday, the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Yisrael, a rabbinical body that makes many of the decision for one of the two factions that makes up the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party, is expected to meet in order to decide whether to quit the government if the law were to pass.

The council will determine during that meeting whether Agudath Yisrael lawmakers Yaakov Litzman, Meir Porush, Yisrael Eichler and Menachem Eliezer Mozes will leave the coalition if the law passes in the Knesset in its current form, a move likely to trigger early elections.

Last month, the rabbinical council said UTJ did not intend to bring down Netanyahu’s government over the issue. A source within the party told The Times of Israel that the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Yisrael agreed to consider backing the amended bill if “a few changes are made.”

Before that, ultra-Orthodox coalition partners threatened to topple the government if the amended version submitted by the Defense Ministry is implemented.

Many in the ultra-Orthodox community shun 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.

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