Yisrael Beytenu party signals opposition to compromise IDF draft deal

After ultra-Orthodox parties reach agreement with Netanyahu, MK from Liberman’s party says it won’t support bill, but also can’t block it

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, at the Knesset on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, at the Knesset on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

A party allied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled opposition to a compromise deal reached late Sunday with the ultra-Orthodox on drafting members of the Haredi community into the army, though it was unclear if the position put the prospect of early elections back on the table.

Oded Forer, a lawmaker from the Yisrael Beytenu party, said his faction would continue to fight against any bill not supported by the Defense Ministry, headed by Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman, but did not say if it would bolt Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, or keep the government intact.

“We will oppose the conscription law,” Forer told Israel Radio. “There is no room for compromise at the expense of the security of Israel at the whim of some rabbi.”

Robert Ilatov, another Knesset member from the party, also told the Keshet TV channel that the party would oppose the bill and appeal to have it struck down.

The comments were the first signal from the party since an 11th-hour deal was brokered Sunday night meant to stave off early elections. Liberman, who has been the IDF draft bill’s most vocal opponent, has yet to officially respond to the compromise deal.

The ultra-Orthodox coalition parties threatened last week to vote down the 2019 state budget unless legislation is approved this week exempting members of their communities from the military draft. The threat prompted a coalition crisis after Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister, threatened to quit his post and the coalition if the budget was not passed this week.

Liberman has insisted he will only support a bill on Haredi draft exemptions written up by his ministry, which he says is the sole authority over the issue. But Forer signaled his five-member party could not block a bill backed by the rest of the coalition.

“They have a majority without us,” Forer said. “They can try to pass [the conscription bill] without [our support].

“I don’t know how they plan to pass a conscription law in the end, maybe with the votes of the Arab Knesset members,” he added cynically.

Yisrael Beytenu MK MK Oded Forer attends a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“If this law passes a third [and final] reading, we will continue fighting it. We don’t play political games on issues of security.”

On Sunday, Netanyahu said that a coalition without Yisrael Beytenu, which would have a razor-thin majority of 61 lawmakers out of 120, was “not an option.”

Liberman and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) head Yaakov Litzman met with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office Sunday night, followed by Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon. The round of meetings seemed to mark a shift from earlier in the day, when the coalition party leaders were entrenched in their positions and refusing to compromise.

After the meeting, sources in Likud were quoted by multiple reports as saying that Netanyahu had agreed to push the draft bill through the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and bring it to a preliminary plenum vote before the budget is passed. The bill would then be shelved until the Knesset’s summer session.

The Council of Torah Sages, a panel of rabbis that holds sway over several members of UTJ, approved the understanding with Netanyahu, reports said. But the deal still requires the assent of Kahlon, as well as that of Liberman, who has insisted throughout the crisis that he would not support any version of the conscription bill that is not drafted by his own ministry and the IDF.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during a vote in the Knesset on February 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The game of brinkmanship has sparked the most severe coalition crisis yet for the three-year-old Netanyahu government, and at times on Sunday, snap elections as early as June seemed all but assured.

The crisis persisted despite an overnight summit between Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers late Saturday, in which Netanyahu presented his conditions for ending the standoff: full agreement from the ultra-Orthodox on a compromise version of a new draft bill, a commitment from Liberman to let the bill pass in parliament, and a commitment from Kahlon to vote in favor.

Netanyahu has effectively told his coalition partners that he is willing to go to elections, and would only work to prevent the government’s collapse if he received upfront assurances that the other parties in the government did not plan to topple it down the road. The prime minister is beset by several corruption allegations, and his coalition partners have hinted that they would likely dismantle the government should he be indicted.

Earlier Sunday, Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett, the education minister, said he would rethink support for the prime minister if early elections were called over his legal woes.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives at the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018.(Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

For his part, Netanyahu insisted throughout Sunday that he wished to avoid early elections. “We are working toward a stable government that will continue until the end of its term in November 2019,” he told his Knesset faction.

“In order for that to happen,” the prime minister said, “all of the factions must come to an agreement and decide to continue together. We are working to try and achieve this because Israeli citizens want a stable government that will last its intended time.”

Ultra-Orthodox Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, the interior minister, said Sunday that given the opposition within the coalition to the conscription bill, Netanyahu’s conditions prove that he wants elections and that negotiations are a waste of time, Army Radio reported.

Kahlon, meanwhile, made clear his Kulanu party’s willingness to go to early polls. The defection of its 10 MKs would mean the end of the coalition. Asked on his way to the cabinet meeting Sunday morning about the possibility of the government dissolving due to the crisis, he said: “We are ready for elections. Of course.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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