Ultra-Orthodox faction signals it won’t topple coalition over enlistment bill

The Council of Torah Sages says UTJ leaders will hold talks with Netanyahu over contentious legislation, will back law if ‘a few changes are made’

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Factions of the ultra-Orthodox community -- Shas Council of Torah Sages, Hassidic Agudat Yisrael and Lithuanian Degel Hatorah -- meet in Bnei Brak ahead of a mass rally against the military draft bill, February 24, 2014. (FLASH90)
Factions of the ultra-Orthodox community -- Shas Council of Torah Sages, Hassidic Agudat Yisrael and Lithuanian Degel Hatorah -- meet in Bnei Brak ahead of a mass rally against the military draft bill, February 24, 2014. (FLASH90)

The rabbinical council governing a key faction within the United Torah Judaism party gave the green light Sunday for its leaders to hold talks with Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu in order to reach an agreement over the latest version of the military enlistment bill.

Signaling that it does not intend to bring down the government over the issue, the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael agreed to consider backing the current bill if “a few changes are made,” a source within the party told The Times of Israel, confirming reports in the ultra-Orthodox media. The source declined to say what changes would be required.

Despite the measured tone taken by Agudath Yisrael after a meeting of its Council of Torah Sages, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has said he will not accept any change to the legislation, potentially clouding the coalition’s prospects of reaching a compromise on the matter.

The contentious legislation, written by the Defense Ministry, sets 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 also formalizes exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.

Illustrative: Students in a Jerusalem yeshiva, August 16, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

But while the Council of Torah Sages has said that the Agudat Yisrael faction will vote against the bill if the changes they are seeking are not made, it also ruled that its MKs will not quit the coalition if the legislation is advanced, Hadashot News reported.

With Agudat Yisrael holding four of UTJ’s six Knesset seats, the bill could still gain a majority of Knesset votes by garnering the support of the opposition Yesh Atid party, which has said it will support the bill in its current form.

If, however, the ultra-Orthodox parties left the coalition, the government would not have a majority, forcing Netanyahu to either bring opposition parties into his government or head to early elections. Elections are currently scheduled to be held in November 2019.

Crucially, if new elections were called, the Supreme Court would be forced to extend the December deadline for passing the new legislation.

While the bill passed its first reading in the Knesset at the beginning of July, it must be finalized in its third reading by a Supreme Court-imposed deadline of December 2. If new legislation is not voted into law, current deferral regulations would expire with the deadline and thousands of yeshiva students would find themselves unable to renew their deferments, making them eligible to be drafted by the IDF.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on October 14, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Yedioth Ahronoth/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier Sunday called for ultra-Orthodox leaders to back the latest version of the bill, saying that he wanted to retain the current coalition and did not believe the government should be dissolved over the issue of Haredi conscription.

“This is a good and balanced law,” Netanyahu said of the bill at the weekly cabinet meeting. “It balances between the needs of the military, which prepared it, and, of course, the needs of the ultra-Orthodox public.”

The current version of the bill 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 95% of the targets are not met, 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.

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