Ultra-Orthodox minister sticks to threat to topple coalition over IDF draft bill

Ultra-Orthodox minister sticks to threat to topple coalition over IDF draft bill

Compromise committee to meet Sunday as sides show no signs of moving. Kulanu still insisting state budget be passed on time, not subject to Haredi ‘blackmail’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

UTJ party head Yaakov Litzman speaks in Ashdod, December 21, 2017 (FLASH90)
UTJ party head Yaakov Litzman speaks in Ashdod, December 21, 2017 (FLASH90)

The head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party on Sunday showed no signs of willingness to compromise on a push for legislation to exempt religious seminary students from the military draft, continuing to threaten a coalition crisis that could bring down the government and spark early elections.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has been threatening to boycott voting on the state budget vote if a law on exempting the ultra-Orthodox from mandatory military service was not passed first, but coalition partner Avigdor Liberman, who serves as defense minister, has vowed his Yisrael Beytenu party will not allow such a measure to pass.

“I cannot support the state budget until the draft law is passed,” the Haredi Hamodia newspaper reported Litzman said, after conferring with the rabbinic leadership of the Agudat Yisrael faction of his party.

He called on all coalition parties to support passage of the draft law “if they want this coalition to continue.”

The comments came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “there is no reason for us to go to early elections, and with goodwill that will not happen,” as he took off for the United States.

However, sources from Netanyahu’s Likud party told the Kikar HaShabbat haredi website on Saturday night that, “at the moment he [Litzman] is not prepared to climb down,” from his stance.

The coalition’s Kulanu party, whose leader Moshe Kahlon on Friday threatened that his party would resign from the government if the budget was not passed within two weeks, stuck to its guns as well.

Kulanu MK Roy Folkman seen during a faction meeting on July 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The party’s faction leader, Roy Folkman, told Israel Radio Sunday that, “Agreements must be honored and the government should not be run by blackmail. A budget must be passed on the date that was agreed in advance — by the end of the [Knesset’s] winter sitting.” The Knesset goes to recess on March 18

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

In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men 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 option to pass a new law.

On Monday, the Haredi parties submitted two bills on the military draft. The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, has been working on its own proposal for the ultra-Orthodox draft, with Liberman saying that only the ministry’s proposal would receive the support of his lawmakers.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has been a contentious one in Israel, revolving around a decades-old debate over whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas, or seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population. After reaching the age of 18, many Israeli men must serve for 32 months and women for 24.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu agreed to establish a committee composed of representatives from all six coalition member parties to hammer out an agreed-upon military draft bill. That committee met on Thursday, with no success, and was due to meet again on Sunday.

Likud sources told Hebrew-language media over the weekend that Litzman was the key problem and that others within United Torah Judaism, as well as within the Haredi Shas party, were more inclined to compromise.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) discussed the crisis with senior coalition figures Saturday night and said a solution could be found, the Walla news site reported.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center on February 14, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The crisis is solvable is that is what is wanted, there’s one address that can solve it,” he said. “The key is the prime minister. If he wants to prevent elections he can gather all the coalition heads into a room and it can be solved in half an hour.”

Polls have predicted an early election sparked by the coalition being unable to come together over the draft law would likely help the centrist Yesh Atid party, which has campaigned on pushing back against laws favoring the ultra-Orthodox.

Party leader Yair Lapid said Sunday that the passage of a law exempting the ultra-Orthodox would be “an insult to the IDF and to the Torah of Israel.”

“The Haredim are exploiting Netanyahu’s weakness because of the investigations,” against him, he said, according to the Walla news website.

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