Ultra-Orthodox party says won’t join government if Haredi draft bill not amended

Proposed legislation on army conscription has emerged as biggest obstacle to Netanyahu’s coalition-building, with Avigdor Liberman insisting on current version of bill

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman seen during a press conference after meeting with president Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman seen during a press conference after meeting with president Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An ultra-Orthodox party leader on Thursday insisted that he would not join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government if proposed legislation on drafting Haredi yeshiva students into the army isn’t changed, heralding tough coalition-building negotiations for the premier.

Avigdor Liberman, head of the secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, has been insisting that “not one letter” of the current bill be changed, and earlier this week said he would rather opt for new elections than give up on the law.

The Defense Ministry-drafted bill would set minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would trigger financial sanctions on the yeshivas where the students study. At the same time, it would also formalize exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.

Many in the ultra-Orthodox community shun the military service that is mandatory for other Jewish Israelis, and the community has historically enjoyed blanket exemptions from the army in favor of religious seminary studies.

With a court deadline looming to finalize a law regulating the draft, many view the proposal as the best possible deal for the ultra-Orthodox, and some in the community have warned that rejecting it will lead to chaos and mass conscription. The High Court of Justice has shot down previous iterations of the law on the grounds that it violates the principle of equality.

But the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party vehemently objects to the current proposal and said earlier this week that it would insist that any yeshiva student would be exempt from military service if he is interested in studying Torah. The party said it was prepared for new elections if its demands were not met.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The conscription law will not pass along the lines of the current bill, and the prime minister will have to solve the coalition’s problems,” UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman told Army Radio on Thursday morning.

Litzman, the current deputy health minister, said all his party’s demands were coordinated with fellow ultra-Orthodox party Shas, creating a united front that is also likely to be joined by the religious Zionist Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP).

In 2017, the High Court ruled that a 2015 version of Israel’s draft law granting most yeshiva students exemptions from service was unconstitutional, telling lawmakers they must pass new guidelines for ultra-Orthodox enlistment. In 2018, the court granted the government a further month and a half to pass the bill, extending an early December deadline to mid-January, but the Knesset was then dissolved and elections set for April 9.

When asked why he let the current bill pass its first reading in the Knesset last year, Litzman said: “I received an order to enable the first reading, and I said already then that if it passes the third [and last] reading — I’m out.”

Netanyahu has a clear path to forming a right-wing coalition, having secured the backing of 65 members out of the 120-seat Knesset.

President Reuven Rivlin (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the president’s residence in Jerusalem on April 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

But Liberman’s party holds five of those seats, just enough to bring Netanyahu to the brink of collapse if he leaves the coalition — as he did in November in a spat over what he said were disagreements with the prime minister’s Gaza policy, shrinking Netanyahu’s coalition at the time to just 61 seats.

UTJ and Shas have eight seats each and URWP has five, and the prime minister also depends on each of them for his new government to survive.

Another condition Litzman mentioned for joining the government was related to construction work on the Tel Aviv light rail and on a new bridge which has been taking place on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest.

“Shabbat is an important issue, and if it won’t be taken care of, I won’t be in the government,” Litzman said, without elaborating or detailing a specific demand.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men demostrating near the army recruiting office in Jerusalem, September 17, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The work continued every week throughout the past few months without vocal objection from the ultra-Orthodox parties. When asked why, Litzman said: “During the election campaign we couldn’t have done anything, it is like talking to the wall. We will definitely not let this pass.”

On Monday, Liberman indicated he would hold his ground on religion and state issues in a coalition likely to be dominated by the religious right.

“If we’re forced to choose between giving up on the [ultra-Orthodox] draft law to remain in the coalition, or sitting in the opposition, we will go to new elections,” Liberman threatened in a meeting of his party’s Central Committee in Jerusalem.

Liberman, whose base of supporters is largely made up of secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, campaigned on opposing “religious coercion,” and supports public transportation and allowing mini-markets to remain open on Shabbat, in addition to ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce, and passing the legislation regulating — and limiting — exemptions to military conscription for ultra-Orthodox students.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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