Elections Averted? Rabbis Due to Tell Their Lawmakers to Compromise on Draft Bill

Sources say Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages doesn’t want to break up the government over the military conscription bill

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman shake hands at a ceremony in Ashkelon, Israel, May 12, 2018.
\ Ilan Assayag

Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages is expected to instruct its MKs in United Torah Judaism to compromise on the proposed conscription bill so as not to break up the governing coalition. According to a party source, its MKs are expected to request some minor changes to the bill, but even if these changes are rejected, they will not withdraw from the coalition but make do with voting against the bill.

It is becoming apparent that the party isn’t interested in moving elections forward over the dispute regarding the conscription bill, and is returning the ball to the court of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. According to an Agudat Yisrael source, the council is expected to call for changing the bill so that yeshiva students will not be forced to enlist. He added, however, that the tone of the sages’ meeting Sunday night was more conciliatory than before, as a result of which the party will resume negotiating with Lieberman.

It still isn’t clear, though, exactly what instructions the sages gave to their MKs – Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, and MKs Yisrael Eichler and Menachem Eliezer Moses.

Due to the leadership crisis in the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) world that has developed during the past few years, the council’s meetings were being dominated by some of the more extreme elements, who took a stringent stance against the draft bill. The leading opponent of the bill was the Rebbe of Slonim, who leads a small Hasidic court in Jerusalem.

Over the past few weeks, however, the more moderate elements were able to effect a significant change, when they removed the council’s secretary, Rabbi Mordechai Stern, from his position. The Rebbe of Belz, considered one of the more moderate members, had stopped attending council meetings until Stern was replaced by Rabbi Yaakov Waltzer.

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu referred to the conscription bill at the meeting of Likud ministers and said it shouldn’t be necessary to call new elections over it. “This is a good coalition,” he said. “If we want, we can go to elections for many reasons, we don’t need the conscription bill issue.”

In response to a comment that the bill could be passed in the next Knesset with the support of Yesh Atid, Netanyahu said, “The Haredim won’t get a better draft law than this.”

Netanyahu also expressed support for the conscription bill at the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday morning and called on the Council of Torah Sages to approve it.

“The law has to pass and the time has come to put it behind us, for everyone’s sake,” he said. “It’s a good law, a balanced law. It balances between the needs of the army, which prepared it, and the needs of the Haredi public. That’s my position, this should be the cabinet’s position, for the good of the state, the Haredi community, and Haredi-secular relations.”