The head of the Zionist Union accused fellow opposition party Yesh Atid of helping the governing coalition stay in power by supporting an ultra-Orthodox military conscription bill Monday.
Avi Gabbay said without the support of Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, the coalition could collapse within a month.
The contentious legislation, written by the Defense Ministry, sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas, or rabbinical seminaries, where they study. At the same time, it also formalizes exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.
Although ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have said they will oppose the bill, they have also indicated they won’t quit the government if it passes.
Analysts had predicted that disagreement over the bill could collapse the government within weeks of the Knesset reconvening Monday, with elections being moved up to spring instead of the scheduled November 2019 date.
“Everything is resting on Yesh Atid,” Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay told his faction at the opening of the Knesset winter session.
“But Lapid has decided to support the conscription law, to support Netanyahu and to sell his values for his own seat in the next government,” Gabbay said.
“Friends, it is time for elections and we are ready for them,” added Gabbay. “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will not get 30 seats and won’t be the next prime minister.”
Polls in recent weeks have shown Netanyahu remaining at 30 seats or above, despite a number of graft investigations against him, and Zionist Union sinking to 11 or 12 seats, with Yesh Atid strengthening to become the second largest faction.
Analysts have predicted Netanyahu is seeking to call early elections to preempt a possible indictment and take advantage of his strong poll numbers. During the summer recess, the prime minister threatened to dismantle the government if the sides could not come together on the ultra-Orthodox conscription law.
Answering press questions at his own faction meeting, Lapid rejected the idea of joining either the Zionist Union or the Likud party to create a center-left or center-right bloc, respectively, in statements that seemed to be aimed at the possibility of early elections.
“We are a centrist party so it wouldn’t be right for us to be part of a left-wing coalition,” he said of a rumored plan set to be announced by opposition chair Tzipi Livni Monday afternoon to form such a union.
Asked if Likud would be a better fit for a political marriage, Lapid said: “We won’t need to join Likud because we will win on our own.”
He did not, however, reject the possibility of joining with former chief of staff Benny Gantz who is rumored to be considering an entry into politics, but stressed that he, Lapid, would lead any potential joint party.
“The only party that challenges Likud is us, the only candidate that challenges Netanyahu is me,” he said.
Meanwhile, coalition officials signaled that the dispute over the conscription law was manageable, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman saying it will not bring down the government.
“I saw the decision of the Council of Sages yesterday and I have to say it is a wise and correct one,” he said of the United Torah Judaism ultra-Orthodox party’s rabbinic council decision to engage in talks over the law.
“Anyone looking for an excuse for elections will need to find another,” he said, in a possible reference to Netanyahu.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett also said he opposes early elections, suggesting that the fight over the bill was a manufactured political crisis that could easily be resolved.
“For us, there is only one date for election — November 2019. The government is good and should continue,” said the key coalition partner at the weekly Jewish Home party faction meeting, as the Knesset resumes its parliamentary activities after a three-month recess.
“The conscription crisis can be solved. The bill can be passed. And it should be,” continued Bennett, adding that the “roots of this disagreement are fake.”
“Liberman and the Haredim know this and can fix it,” he said.
The contentious legislation, written by the Defense Ministry, sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas, or rabbinical seminaries, where they study.
While the bill passed its first reading in the Knesset at the beginning of July, it must be finalized in its third reading by a Supreme Court-imposed deadline of December 2. If new legislation is not voted into law, current deferral regulations would expire with the deadline and thousands of yeshiva students would find themselves unable to renew their deferments, making them eligible to be drafted by the IDF.
The current version of the bill sets the target for ultra-Orthodox recruits for 2018 at just below 4,000 recruits, with that number increasing by 8 percent per year for three years, 6.5% for the three years after that and 5% for a further four years. If 95% of the targets are not met, sanctions in the form of cuts to state funding allocated to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas would be put in place, increasing each year the targets are missed.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.