Israel's ultra-Orthodox hold ruling coalition hostage over draft law

Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties are holding up approval of the budget over a conscription law they are determined to see pass this session, threatening to destabilize the coalition.

al-monitor Ultra-Orthodox protesters take part in a demonstration against a process whereby members of their community are being forced to serve in the Israeli army, Jerusalem, March 28, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.

Topics covered

benjamin netanyahu, aryeh deri, israeli elections, israeli politics, budget, drafting of ultra-orthodox, draft, conscription, idf

Mar 5, 2018

Ultra-Orthodox parties are pushing for the adoption of a bill exempting the ultra-Orthodox from conscription, even threatening to block the approval of the 2019 budget over it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes these threats seriously, since in Israel rejection of a budget is synonymous with a non-confidence vote against the government.

But can Aryeh Deri’s Shas party find a compromise and prevent a decision to dismantle the government and move to an early election? The latest polls don’t flatter Shas, and the party is already on the brink of the vote threshold for representation in the Knesset. One of Deri’s close associates told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that going to an early election now would be the dumbest move possible for all the coalition parties.

The Purim holiday gave Yisrael Beitenu's leader, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, an opportunity to needle the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties — his rivals in the political conflict over the conscription law. Liberman posted a video Facebook message for Purim. Dressed up as an ultra-Orthodox man, he said, “When the month of Adar is on us, we enlist with joy. With the help of God, Litzman would be in the Sayeret Matkal, and Gafni in Shayetet 13.”

It’s doubtful that the two ulta-Orthodox politicians he named, Knesset members Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, appreciated Liberman’s joke about their joining Israel's elite army and navy units. The prank added fuel to the fire of the conflict that threatens the coalition.

A November 2015 amendment to the conscription law removed the criminal consequences for yeshiva students who evade military service — the penalties that had been added by the previous Knesset in 2014. In September 2017, the Supreme Court struck down the amendment, objecting to the way the amendment undermined the authority of the defense minister to set quotas for enlisted ultra-Orthodox as he sees fit. The court gave the Knesset a year to pass an alternative law.

After the ruling, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties made it clear that legislating a new conscription law was critical. However, it seems that if it weren’t for the embroilment of the prime minister in an array of criminal investigations, they might have waited until the Knesset’s summer session instead of setting an ultimatum for passing it during the current session. 

Until two weeks ago, the ultra-Orthodox had seemed satisfied with their achievements in the current government and would not have turned the question into a crisis. Deri said that the law must pass and Agudat Yisrael's Council of Torah Sages called for pressure on Netanyahu, but there were no threats or ultimatums. 

Early last week, the tone changed. Liberman announced Feb. 27, “Regarding the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, Yisrael Beitenu’s position is clear. We will only support legislation formulated by the professional staff assembled by the Defense Ministry.” The staff includes only professionals and there is no ultra-Orthodox representation. Gafni quickly responded by threatening the coalition: “We entered the coalition with the central issue being yeshiva students. The state cannot exist without students whose learning is their faith. We legislated to regulate the issue. The Supreme Court rejected the law for the fourth time. We said we’ll legislate a basic law but Yisrael Beitenu opposes it. From now on, we will no longer vote for the senseless laws you introduce.”

Litzman then directly addressed Netanyahu and informed him that in accordance with the instructions of the Council of Torah Sages, he cannot support the government budget until the conscription law passes. In response, Liberman said, “The conscription law is a draft-dodging law. The decision of Yahadut HaTorah is no less than blackmail. Yisrael Beitenu will not give in and will not allow this to happen.”

Netanyahu, in the midst of interrogation preparations, urgently gathered the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties and promised to try to find a solution.

The ultra-Orthodox are also directing their anger toward Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whom they accuse of promising to support the law but then reneging. “It is Kahlon's doing that the Supreme Court continues to run this country,” a senior Yahadut HaTorah member told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. 

Kahlon insists on passing the budget during the current session, which ends March 18, and his party, Kulanu, announced that it will not hesitate to go to elections if that doesn’t happen.

On March 3, Culture Minister Miri Regev of the Likud warned, “There’s only one party in the coalition that has no reason to fear an election. It’s called the Likud. We have a very high degree of trust from the public and bogus threats will not work against us.” There is something to her claim. Most polls show the Likud keeping its power as the largest party in the Knesset. In comparison, almost all of the other coalition parties would weaken. 

Within the Likud, members wonder what caused the ultra-Orthodox to harden their line. A Likud minister told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that when party leaders sat with leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties to understand why they made the ultimatum, their answers were evasive. One of the ultra-Orthodox politicians said, “The possibility that in the next few months Netanyahu will be forced to vacate his seat is causing us to lose sleep, and it’s clear to us that in such an event there’s no chance that we would get a conscription law that we could live with. Liberman is waiting for us in a corner because he owes his voters some achievements before the election or he will not pass the vote threshold. With all our achievements, without an acceptable conscription law, it would be as though we got nothing done during the current term.”

The Likud minister has no doubt that Netanyahu's interrogation on March 2 riled up all the coalition parties, and the whirlwind of threats and counter-threats is almost unstoppable. “The prime minister needs superhuman political power to be able to deal with this crisis while he is occupied by the investigations,” said the minister.

Netanyahu won a few days’ respite with his trip to the United States to participate in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's conference and meet with President Donald Trump. Upon getting on the plane, he said that there is no reason to go to an early election and all that is needed from the coalition parties is goodwill. Until Netanyahu returns, Ministers Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin, with Deri’s help, will be hard at work on a resolution.

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