Zionist Union seeks to turn up heat on Yesh Atid over military enlistment bill

Zionist Union seeks to turn up heat on Yesh Atid over military enlistment bill

MK Yoel Hasson says vote on legislation will serve as a no-confidence motion on Netanyahu government as Lapid vows to back it

Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson attends a Knesset committee meeting on November 30, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson attends a Knesset committee meeting on November 30, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A top lawmaker from the opposition Zionist Union faction on Saturday sought to pressure the Yesh Atid party into opposing legislation addressing ultra-Orthodox military enlistment, saying an upcoming vote on the bill would serve in effect as a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“The Zionist Union faction will turn the vote on the [military] draft law to a vote of ‘no-confidence in the Netanyahu government,’ meaning whoever votes in favor of the law is giving the Netanyahu government a green light to continue,” tweeted MK Yoel Hasson, who serves as chief opposition whip.

“Yesh Atid and the ultra-Orthodox parties need to decide on Monday where they stand: For or against the government,” Hasson added. “Against the law and against the government, that is what is expected from the opposition.”

Hasson’s message appeared to be aimed primarily at Yesh Atid, whose leader Yair Lapid has vowed that his opposition party will support the bill. A vote by Yesh Atid lawmakers in favor of the bill could allow its passage, despite threats from ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition to oppose the legislation. A failure to pass the bill could portend the government’s collapse.

The tweet drew a quick rebuke from Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah.

“Don’t preach to us about enlistment or opposition work,” Shelah wrote on Twitter. “Yesh Atid will continue to do what is good for the state.”

Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid leads a party faction meeting at the Knesset on June 11, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In a Facebook post earlier Saturday, Lapid defended his vow to support the bill and sought to fend off criticism that doing so could prevent the government’s collapse.

“This is just a sentence someone said and everyone is repeating,” Lapid wrote, saying the coalition would likely survive even if the legislation fails in the Knesset.

While conceding it is the opposition’s role to challenge the government, Lapid, who has long campaigned in favor of drafting members of the ultra-Orthodox community, said the legislation “is what Yesh Atid fought for since day one.”

The contentious legislation is the product of a Defense Ministry committee report published earlier this month. The ministry called the framework “a durable, realistic and relevant arrangement” for ultra-Orthodox conscription. The proposal 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.

Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, have threatened to oppose the legislation if it advances, and even to destabilize the coalition, in order to torpedo the measure.

On Sunday, in a meeting with coalition party leaders, Netanyahu insisted that the bill would move forward to a first plenum vote, but that “after the first reading, there will be a discussion between all parts of the coalition toward a broad agreement for the second and third readings.”

He brushed off the Haredi threats to the coalition, saying, “I don’t want elections, but I’m not afraid of elections. If there are elections, I’ll be okay.”

A bill must pass all three votes in the plenum to become law.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-L), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (3rd-R), and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2nd-L) attend a conference in Lod on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

At Sunday’s meeting, the heads of both Haredi parties, Shas’s Aryeh Deri and UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman, reiterated their opposition to the bill. Both parties, however, have only vowed to oppose the “current version” of the bill, but have not said they are opposed in principle to its underlying framework.

Last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party expressed support for the bill.

In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down a previous law exempting ultra-Orthodox men who were 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 by September 1, 2018.

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 should be called up for compulsory military service, like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population.

United Torah Judaism’s Litzman said earlier this month that if an ultra-Orthodox-backed proposal dealing with the community’s conscription is not passed into law by July 22, when the Knesset summer recess begins, the party will leave the government, likely spelling its untimely end.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (C), Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (L), and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni attend the third Shas conference in Jerusalem on February 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Litzman represents the Hasidic half of the UTJ party. The Lithuanian half, headed by MK Moshe Gafni, has been careful to avoid such pronouncements, as has Shas.

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 national service 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 March deal delayed action on the issue, until the Defense Ministry presented its recommendations earlier this month.

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