Ultra-Orthodox deputy minister threatens to quit government over draft law

Yaakov Litzman demands High Court extend September deadline to implement bill regulating Haredi enlistment, but indicates his party won’t topple coalition over the issue

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

An ultra-Orthodox cabinet minister on Tuesday threatened to quit the government unless the High Court of Justice postpones the implementation of a bill regulating mandatory military service for members of Israel’s Haredi community.

Yaakov Litzman, Deputy Health Minister and head of the United Torah Judaism party, said he would resign from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government within a week unless the court extends its deadline on the bill formalizing ultra-Orthodox draft deferments.

Last September, the High Court ruled that a 2015 version of Israel’s draft law granting most yeshiva students draft exemptions was unconstitutional, and gave lawmakers a year to institute new guidelines for Ultra-Orthodox enlistment. That year ends September 1.

But the Knesset will conclude its spring session on July 19, and won’t reconvene for the fall session until mid-October.

Without the amended legislation in place, thousands of yeshiva students could find themselves unable to renew their deferments, making them eligible to be drafted to the IDF.

Israeli police officers clash with ultra-Orthodox Jews during a raid on an anti-draft office in the Mea Shearim neighborhood on August 8, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has long been a controversial 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.

On Tuesday, citing the need for dramatic changes to the new bill currently wending its way through committee, UTJ said the parliament needed an extension of the court’s deadline to complete the changes the party is demanding.

To that end, Litzman issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu saying he would resign from the government unless the prime minister asked the High Court for more time, or if the court doesn’t grant his request.

Litzman did not explicitly say his party would also leave the coalition, suggesting he does not want to topple the government and force elections over the issue.

The contentious legislation backed 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.

The bill sets the enlistment target for 2018 at 3,348, with targets rising by 5-8 percent every year, reaching 6,844 by 2027. Starting in 2020, if enlistment rates do not reach 95% of the target, funds for schools will be reduced accordingly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 8, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

If rates do not reach 85% of the yearly target by 2023, the agreement will be canceled. The bill does not detail what the penalties for such cancellation would be. Yesh Atid officials asserted to Haaretz that this would then entail criminal penalties for any who evade enlistment, as is standard for any citizen.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman last week said he would not support any changes to the current proposal.

Last week, the legislation passed its first reading in the Knesset, the first of three readings it must pass before becoming law.

A majority of 63 to 39 lawmakers voted for the legislation after a stormy debate late last Monday night. The opposition Yesh Atid faction voted alongside the ruling coalition, ensuring the bill’s passage.

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