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Explained: The crisis over drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students that could bring down the government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, January 12, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Expectations are growing in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition that the alliance could soon collapse over exempting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from the draft. The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, a member of the coalition, is threatening to withhold its support for the budget if new draft-exemption legislation isn’t passed to replace similar legislation that was struck down by the High Court of Justice.

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A senior cabinet minister told Haaretz on Saturday that there appears to be no alternative to moving up a Knesset election from next year. Before leaving for Washington over the weekend, Netanyahu tried to cool passions over the issue, but United Torah Judaism on one side and the Kulanu party on the other appear to have dug in their heels.

Referring to the prospect of an early election, Netanyahu said: “There’s no reason for it to happen, and with goodwill, it won’t happen. I have goodwill and I hope my partners also do.” On the other hand, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism told two radio stations Sunday that he was bound by a decision by the Council of Torah Sages to have a draft-exemption bill for yeshiva students passed before the budget is.

The ultra-Orthodox – or Haredi – newspaper Hamodia reported that Litzman expected across-the-board support for such a bill from the coalition partners “if they wish the coalition to continue.”

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But in Kulanu, the party headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, sources said they would not compromise and would not link passage of the budget to passage of a draft-exemption bill. Also, Kahlon said Saturday that if the budget did not pass next week as planned, he would quit the coalition and trigger the fall of the government.

What was in the law that the court struck down?

In September, the High Court struck down a law that exempted Haredi yeshiva students from the draft. The court ruled that the law was discriminatory and set a one-year deadline for an alternative to be put in place.

Passed in 2014, the law was designed to increase the number of Haredim drafted and provided a deferment to age 26, when a full exemption would have been granted. The law also provided for a transition period until June 2017, after which the number of Haredi draftees would have risen to meet conscription targets.

If that didn’t happen, the deferment system was to be scrapped. After the Haredi parties entered the coalition, however, the transition period was extended to 2020 and criminal sanctions in the initial law were repealed.

What do the Haredi parties demand?

In exchange for their support in passing the budget, United Torah Judaism’s Litzman is demanding new conscription legislation. The party seeks coalition support for two bills, debate on which has been delayed until next week.

The first is a Basic Law – one with constitutional status – that would consider Torah study a higher value than equality and thereby override the court’s decision on the matter. A second bill would authorize the defense minister to defer the military service of 18-year-old yeshiva students until age 26 so they could continue studying. It would also set targets and quotas for the drafting of yeshiva students.

Are the Haredi parties acting as a bloc?

On the issue of the draft, the two ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, are for the most part acting as a bloc. This time it’s UTJ’s Litzman who is taking the most militant line and demanding that the conscription legislation be passed now.

He decided to threaten a breakup of the government without coordinating UTJ’s position with other UTJ Knesset members. The decision does not bind those MKs, but it serves as a restraint of sorts by making it harder for them to take a more moderate line.

Litzman claims that Netanyahu’s desire to pass the budget makes this an opportune time to demand the passage of the legislation. Shas is taking a lower profile. Party leader Arye Dery, the interior minister, has not spoken out publicly on the crisis.

What do the other coalition parties say?

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, called the Haredi demands unacceptable extortion and said there would be no compromising. He did, however, say he did not seek a confrontation with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the Habayit Hayehudi party, whose base is heavily Orthodox, called on the coalition parties to find a solution to the crisis, saying “there is great importance to the stability” of the current government. His party colleague, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, said the 2014 conscription law should provide the basis for a new one that should be amended “in the spirit of the ruling by the High Court of Justice.”

What happens next?

Over the weekend, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) failed to find a solution. Last Tuesday, Netanyahu and the heads of the Haredi parties decided that a coalition committee on the issue would meet once again; the panel had formed after September’s High Court ruling. In any event, no binding decisions will be made until Netanyahu returns to Israel over the weekend.