Giving his coalition partners an “unequivocal” ultimatum, the head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said Monday that if a bill that exempts his community’s seminary students from the military draft is not passed into law in the next seven weeks, the party will leave the government, likely spelling its untimely end.
“It needs to pass its three readings by the end of this legislative session, otherwise we will leave,” Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman told Army Radio, referring to the Knesset’s summer sitting which comes to an end on July 22. “If the law doesn’t pass, we are leaving the government, unequivocally.”
Litzman’s threat, not his first of this nature, comes ahead of a September deadline set by the High Court of Justice for the Knesset to re-legislate a previous exemption that the court disqualified on the grounds that it violated principles of equality.
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.
After a similar ultimatum was made by UTJ during the Knesset’s winter session, coalition partners reached a last minute deal to cooperate on the contentious issue in order to reach an agreement before the deadline. But a compromise agreement still remains elusive, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman vowing that his staunchly secular Yisrael Beytenu party would not fold in the face of demands made by their ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
The ultra-Orthodox parties have submitted two parallel bills on the military draft. The first, a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would enshrine long-term Torah study as a recognized form of official service to the state in lieu of military service. The second bill would force the Defense Ministry to grant deferrals to yeshiva students, and refers back to the proposed Basic Law repeatedly in defending the arrangements. The ultra-Orthodox parties have long been opposed, on principle, to supporting Basic Laws.
According to the March deal, the ultra-Orthodox conscription bills would be shelved until the Defense Ministry presented its own recommendations for amendments, which would then be brought for a Knesset vote.
But Litzman said he has seen no progress from the Defense Ministry.
“I don’t know anything about their proposal. No one has spoken to me,” he said. “I’ve told the prime minister that we will not support a bill that we have not been involved with. Either we pass a bill that we accept or we go to elections.”
Speaking at his Yisrael Beytenu Knesset faction meeting on Monday, Liberman said that the Defense Ministry proposals had been due to be presented to him on Sunday but that the committee working on them requested a extension of several days.
He said that once the recommendations are presented to him, which he expects to happen this week, “I will read them and assess them, and if they are acceptable, we will present them [to the Knesset] next week.”
With coalition Knesset members numbering 66 of the 120-seat legislature, the loss of UTJ’s six seats would almost certainly bring about new elections.
“I’m not scared of elections,” Litzman said. “The polls show that it’s OK.”
While 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, or seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population — months of sporadic street protests have recently been organized by the so-called Jerusalem Faction, which refuses to have any connection with the military.
Although ultra-Orthodox Israelis are exempted from enlistment, they are required to report to enlistment offices in order to sign a deferral of service, which Jerusalem Faction rabbinic leaders order their students not to do. The protests, usually focused in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, and Beit Shemesh, have led to violent clashes with police.
Ultra-Orthodox seminary students have been largely exempt from Israel’s military draft since then-defense minister David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 students from service in 1949 on the grounds that “their studies are their craft.”
Over the years, the High Court of Justice has struck down a number of changes to the laws regarding ultra-Orthodox exemptions from military service, finding them to be a violation of the principle of equality.