Ultra-Orthodox conscription bill heads to cabinet as parties look to end crisis

Defense minister insists IDF’s needs must play central role in determining Israel’s military draft policy, but signals openness to compromise

Illustrative: Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman (left), Shas leader Aryeh Deri (center), and United Torah Judaism chief Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative: Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman (left), Shas leader Aryeh Deri (center), and United Torah Judaism chief Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The coalition crisis threatening to send the country to early elections may be on its way to a resolution, after Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman signaled late Thursday he may be willing to allow an ultra-Orthodox conscription law to move ahead in parliament next week.

The crisis began when ultra-Orthodox MKs from the United Torah Judaism party announced last week they would not support the 2019 budget bill unless the coalition pushed through a bill drafted by UTJ that would ensure ultra-Orthodox seminary students were automatically exempted from military service.

Earlier Thursday, Liberman said in a statement to the press that Israel was being “held hostage by a group of extremists.” He emphasized that “I do not want elections, but I will not give up on our principles.

“We will not conduct negotiations [on the draft law] with a gun to our head,” he insisted.

Liberman has long demanded that any military draft law be rooted in the needs of the military. He reiterated that demand on Thursday, saying a special committee in his ministry will prepare “the best version of the law for the Israel Defense Forces and the people of Israel. Let it work!”

But by the evening, coalition sources said that Liberman had signaled a willingness to consider letting the UTJ bill — or at least a compromise version of it — move ahead to the first of three votes in the Knesset.

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

Meanwhile, in a bid to allow for a compromise to be forged early next week, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked ordered that the Haredi-drafted bill be placed on the agenda of the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which is set to meet on Sunday to vote on granting government backing to a variety of bills.

The move sets out a preliminary timeline for resolving the crisis — if the parties wish to do so. A Haredi bill could receive government support on Sunday, get a first vote in the plenum early next week, then go to committee — where a compromise version might be hammered out, and voted on, before the Knesset goes on its spring recess at the end of next week.

The Haredi bill forces the Defense Ministry to accept seminary study as triggering an automatic waiver of the military draft. Shaked was also formulating an alternate compromise bill.

Any decision on a compromise will likely only be made on Saturday night, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lands back in Israel from his trip to the US.

The dispute has threatened to topple Netanyahu’s government.

The prime minister said Wednesday he is not seeking elections, but a fresh vote will be held if coalition parties can’t agree on the legislation and commit to avoid infighting over the next year and a half. Laying out his conditions for avoiding elections, Netanyahu said any bill on ultra-Orthodox enlistment must be backed by the entire coalition and provide a long-term solution.

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