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Ultra-Orthodox legislators in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government are demanding that the coalition abandon its unilateral push to radically constrain the judiciary, and instead proceed with judicial reform only by consensus. At least, that’s what several Hebrew media reports, notably the well-connected ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabbat, claimed on Tuesday.
The ultra-Orthodox parties — United Torah Judaism and Shas — were said to be increasingly concerned that the overhaul legislation gives their community too few benefits while raising hostility to them and deeply harming wider national cohesion. So disturbed have the ultra-Orthodox legislators become by the coalition’s drastic and heavy-handed legislative blitz, the reports said, that they plan to vote against further overhaul bills — notably including Netanyahu’s plan to revamp the Judicial Selection Committee to give the coalition power to appoint almost all of Israel’s judges — should they be brought for a vote without the agreement of the opposition. And if this prompts the resignation of Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the spearhead of the overhaul, then so be it.
Rather than marking a welcome if terribly belated realization by the ultra-Orthodox parties that the overhaul push represents a constitutional coup that destroys Israel’s independent judiciary and removes the only guaranteed defense against abuse by the ruling majority, the carefully leaked talk of ultra-Orthodox opposition to the unilateral overhaul stems from narrower concerns.
After more than seven months of relentless, widespread protests against the overhaul, the ultra-Orthodox leadership has internalized that the Israeli mainstream is not going to quietly tolerate the shattering of democracy. It has recognized that if, as he has indicated, Netanyahu intends to go ahead by November with the legislation that gives the coalition control over the selection of new judges, public protests will intensify to unprecedented levels, and refusals to serve in the IDF among volunteer reservists will become a still greater strategic threat to Israel’s capacity to protect itself from external enemies.
That being the case, the ultra-Orthodox parties — at the insistence of their rabbinical leaderships — want the government to set aside the overhaul and instead to legislate, as they were promised in their coalition accords, a blanket exemption for their young men from military and all other national service, with full-time Torah study recognized as a core state value and allocated commensurate government financial support.
As things stand, only a small minority — some 9%, according to the IDF — of eligible ultra-Orthodox males perform military service, compared to a national average among Jewish Israelis of over 80%. But the High Court has resisted efforts to legislate a blanket exemption. Hence, the ultra-Orthodox parties want the exemption law to be enacted with an accompanying clause preemptively barring the High Court from striking it down.
A law enshrining the discriminatory exemption of the Haredi community from military and national service is likely to prove yet more divisive nationally than even the core judicial overhaul legislation
The problem — for the ultra-Orthodox parties and indeed for the rest of the coalition — is that a law enshrining the discriminatory exemption of the Haredi community from military and national service is likely to prove yet more divisive nationally than even the core judicial overhaul legislation.
Thousands of Israeli reservists have threatened not to report for duty as the overhaul legislation has progressed. And while neither the government nor the IDF has released official figures on how many have followed through on that threat since the first overhaul law — which barred judicial review of government and ministerial decisions on the grounds of “reasonableness” — was passed last month, the top brass has publicly acknowledged “worsening damage” to IDF readiness.
Were the coalition to drive through legislation exempting the entire ultra-Orthodox community from service, however, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has reportedly told ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in the past few days, dissent and an outright refusal to serve would spread from the reserves into the standing army as well. (The IDF firmly opposes any legislation that undermines the “people’s army” and insists that draft notices should continue to be sent to all those who are eligible for service. Central Bureau of Statistics projections, incidentally, indicate (Hebrew link) that by 2050, 40% of 18-year-old Jewish Israelis will come from the ultra-Orthodox community.)
Public anger over non-service by the ultra-Orthodox extends deep into Likud’s own voting base
Gallant has reportedly said he would not support the legislation, and he is unlikely to be the only coalition member who would oppose it. Public anger over non-service by the ultra-Orthodox extends deep into Likud’s own voting base; lawmakers in Netanyahu’s party well recognize the damage that rooting the inequality in law would do to their personal reelection prospects.
Netanyahu has reportedly been pushing the ultra-Orthodox parties to agree to slightly less far-reaching legislation on avoiding the draft — thus far to no avail.
Even as public protests continued and the tide of refusal-to-serve threats swelled, every single member of the 64-strong coalition cast their votes for the “reasonableness” law last month. For the first time in this government’s devastating seven and a half months in power, that docile unanimity might just be starting to fray.
Still, it’s another two months before the Knesset returns from its summer recess — plenty of time for Netanyahu to try to square the circle with his ultra-Orthodox allies, for all manner of diplomatic and security issues to take center stage or, indeed, for the High Court’s series of overhaul-related hearings in September to reframe the entire constitutional debate.
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