Likud denies reports: PM didn't talk to Haredi leaders today

Ultra-Orthodox parties said to refuse Netanyahu request to compromise on draft bill

Due to military pressure, PM reportedly trying to reach agreement for a less-drastic version of conscription law

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox parties are reportedly refusing to compromise on a bill that would exempt yeshiva students from military service, despite the requests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu spoke Sunday with United Torah Judaism chairman Yitzhak Goldknopf and Shas chairman Aryeh Deri to negotiate a “softer” version of the proposed draft bill due to pressure from the military.

According to Haaretz, Goldknopf refused to budge, while Deri tried to reach a compromise or delay the legislation.

Netanyahu’s Likud party denied the reports in a late-night statement that said the premier did not meet or speak to the ultra-Orthodox party leaders on Sunday, and that reports of a conversation about the bill were “simply not correct.”

When the former law that effectively exempted ultra-Orthodox men from military service expired in June, the government nevertheless ordered the IDF to not draft yeshiva students until March.

The planned bill, which the coalition plans on advancing during the Knesset’s upcoming winter session, would lower the age of draft exemption to 21. Currently, ultra-Orthodox men must study in a yeshiva and are forbidden from working until the age of 26, in order to receive a draft exemption.

Furthermore, the bill is expected to be passed in the form of a Basic Law, thereby making it seemingly immune to judicial review.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against the military draft. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last month, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers presented a bill enshrining the value of Torah study in a Basic Law, but the legislation was quickly shot down by Netanyahu’s Likud party, due to backlash.

While Basic Laws can generally be passed without any special majority, they enjoy a special standing and are seen to make up the closest thing Israel has to a constitution. They can still be reviewed by the judiciary, but there is indeed no precedent for the striking down of a Basic Law by the High Court of Justice.

A key reason why the two ultra-Orthodox parties have been among the biggest proponents of the government’s judicial overhaul has been their desire to prevent the High Court from interfering in this specific piece of legislation. But rather than just passing the draft exemption bill as a Basic Law, they have aggressively backed legislating an override cause, which would allow the Knesset to overrule court decisions.

Netanyahu told US media that he would bar the coalition from passing a bill that would allow the Knesset to override court decisions with a majority of just 61 MKs, but he has avoided ruling out less extreme versions of an override clause, and the ultra-Orthodox parties insist that the measure is essential to their continued presence in the government.

In a 2017 ruling, the High Court of Justice invalidated the current conscription law, which gave sweeping exemptions to full-time religious scholars. It gave the government multiple deadlines and extensions for legislation of a new enlistment law and allowed the Defense Ministry to rely upon the current, struck-down law until a replacement is passed. The government’s 15th extension to legislate a solution expired at the end of July.

At present, tens of thousands of Haredi men either avoid working or work off the books, due to fear of being drafted and losing special government stipends paid out to exempted yeshiva students younger than 26.

It is not clear whether the bill would also strip yeshiva students older than 21 of the special state stipends that are currently available to them until they turn 26. In 2020, those stipends were paid out to about 150,000 recipients costing taxpayers about NIS 1.2 billion ($326 million) annually, according to a Globes analysis. The figure is equivalent to 1.7% of the education ministry’s budget for 2020.

The initiative is likely to anger many secular Israelis seeking greater participation by army-age Haredi men in national service. Lowering the exemption age is seen by many secular Israelis as rewarding ultra-Orthodox skirting of military service, by enabling them to enter the job market at around the same age as their serving peers.

Many non-Haredi promoters of this objective support lowering the exemption age. In a recent position paper, the liberal-leaning Israel Democracy Institute acknowledged that lowering the exemption age may seem like a “reward” for non-service, but was nonetheless desirable.

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