Analysis

Could Forcing ultra-Orthodox Jews to Enlist in the Israeli Army Lead to Netanyahu's Collapse?

Ruling is a fantasy for the left to curry favor with the public and for the right to finally enact a law to bypass the justices

Prime Minister Netanyahu flanked by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, left, and Interior Minister Arye Dery at a conference of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hamodia newspaper, November, 20, 2016.
Kobi Gideon/GPO

Ultra-Orthodox politicians were quick to threaten to dismantle the coalition Tuesday night after Israel's High Court struck down the exemption of Haredim from serving in the Israeli military. Dragging the country into elections over yeshiva students dodging the draft would be the fantasy of Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid's chairman, Avi Gabbay, the new leader of Labor, and the left in general.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has never been able to enjoy a diplomatic trip abroad without politics or investigations back home ruining it, won’t hasten to call early elections.

His alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties, which have exceeded all reasonable bounds over the last two years, is electoral poison. We saw this in public opinion polls conducted following the crisis over doing railroad work on Shabbat, in which Netanyahu capitulated utterly to the United Torah Judaism party. The general public repaid him by turning its back on his Likud party en masse.

There’s a theory that Netanyahu was just looking for a pretext to dissolve the Knesset and go to elections before the attorney general makes a decision on the criminal cases against him. This could be such a pretext, but as noted, it could boomerang.

The High Court of Justice showed great mercy to the coalition by giving it a year to change the conscription law. Toward the end of this period, the government will request and receive an extension. In the meantime, elections will be held and a new coalition will arise. The politicians and jurists will then cook up another twisted mess in the guise of a new conscription law, and the next Knesset will approve it. After that, the new law will be challenged in the High Court again. And snap elections won’t change any of this.

That’s the likely scenario. A less likely, though not impossible, scenario is that the current Knesset will actually tackle this hot potato – it’s been flaming for 40 years already, if not 70 – and deal with it once and for all. To do so, it will effectively have only the winter session, which opens in late October and ends about five months later.

The only solution on the table is passing a law to circumvent the High Court ruling, or alternatively, enacting a law allowing the Knesset to override the court. In other words, shooting our highest court in the foot and castrating its ability to overturn Knesset legislation.

If we’re already talking about fantasies, this is the number-one fantasy of the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc. Just give them a chance to put the justices, whose Zionism the justice minister has publicly questioned, in their places.

The problem isn’t that our laws and cabinet decisions are flawed and discriminate between different segments of the population. It’s that the High Court keeps being asked to fix what the politicians have broken. Once it has been crushed, it will be great to live here.

The prevailing argument on the right is that the judges brought this on themselves. In the past month, the High Court has seemed to be an allegory about steroids: a series of rulings on asylum seekers in South Tel Aviv, a tax on third apartments, a biannual budget – and now the draft law, which is getting on the coalition’s already frayed nerves.

The main question is whether Netanyahu’s coalition has any strength to take action. On paper, that’s a No. The Kulanu faction headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is sticking to its promise to protect the Supreme Court from its ill-wishers in the coalition ranks. Kahlon ratified that commitment just a week ago, in public, at a party event. Without Kulanu, the courts cannot be bypassed.

Politics is notoriously elastic, however. Under some circumstances, Kahlon might bend, but if he thinks it would hurt him electorally, he will block any such move with all his might.

In Likud, we may assume that Benny Begin and perhaps Yehudah Glick as well won’t lend a hand to such legislation, and naturally it remains unclear how Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, will behave. He isn’t a fan of the High Court but he is also locked in a rivalry with the Haredim. As defense minister he can hardly encourage mass defection. No question about it, this is some mess the High Court cooked up for the cabinet.