Ultra-Orthodox leader says he’ll topple government if enlistment bill passes

UTJ’s Litzman says his party will leave the coalition when legislation setting targets for Haredi conscription is signed into law

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a Knesset Health Committee meeting on July 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a Knesset Health Committee meeting on July 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The leader of an ultra-Orthodox party threatened Monday to bring down the coalition if a bill regulating mandatory military service for members of the religious community becomes law.

“If the enlistment law passes three readings, we will quit the coalition,” Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads the United Torah Judaism party, said at the Knesset.

His threat came as lawmakers were set to vote on the legislation later Monday, in the first of three readings it must pass before becoming law.

Earlier Monday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said he would not support any changes to the current proposal.

Litzman said the decision to oppose the law was made by the Council of Torah Sages from his Hasidic Agudat Yisrael faction. It was not clear if Degel Hatorah, the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox faction in UTJ, would also quit the coalition if the bill passes into law.

The coalition, which has 66 of 120 Knesset seats, needs UTJ’s 6 seats in order to preserve its majority.

Israel's universal draft is one factor behind the low peacefulness rating. Here, soldiers are being sworn in to a religious IDF unit. (photo credit: Photo by Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox soldiers being sworn in to a religious IDF unit. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

The bill would formalize exemptions to mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox seminary students by setting yearly conscription targets. Seminaries that fail to meet the targets would be hit by economic penalties under the legislation.

“We’re against sanctions and all types of other things in this law,” Litzman said. “We must reach a situation that anyone who wants to study at a religious seminary in Israel… will be able to continue studying undisturbed.”

He also said his opposition to the bill will not be influenced by the opposition Yesh Atid party’s support for it. “I’m sure that no one thinks or dreams that if [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid supports this bill, we’ll support it,” Litzman said.

Though UTJ and fellow ultra-Orthodox coalition party Shas oppose the bill in its current version, Yesh Atid’s backing for it means it will likely clear its first reading later on Monday. A failure to pass the bill could portend the government’s collapse.

MK Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party at the Knesset on July 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Lapid has drawn fire from the opposition Zionist Union for supporting the bill, with lawmakers from the party saying Yesh Atid will be saving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Lapid has argued that the legislation is close to a similar bill his party had suggested in the past. Key differences are that the current bill does not call for criminal sanctions against students who dodge the draft — only economic penalties against the institutions where they study — and also has a lower quota for the number of ultra-Orthodox who will be drafted each year.

The controversial legislation is the product of a Defense Ministry committee report published last month. The ministry called the plan “a durable, realistic and relevant arrangement” for ultra-Orthodox conscription. The proposal 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.

Speaking at his Yesh Atid faction meeting earlier Monday, Lapid stressed that his support for the bill was based on its acceptance by the Defense Ministry and that his party would not support any changes to the proposal in committee debates ahead of its second and third Knesset readings.

Responding to the Yesh Atid leader, Liberman told his own lawmakers that he “is not trying to please either Lapid or the ultra-Orthodox but the defense establishment.”

He rejected possible changes to the current proposal such as removing the sanctions, saying that and amendments could risk the bill being challenged by the High Court.

“Everything you change opens a Pandora’s box. We will therefore only accept the law passing in its current version,” he said.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has long been a contentious one in Israel, revolving around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas should be called up for compulsory military service, like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population.

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 opportunity to pass the new law by September 1, 2018.

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