With Netanyahu in D.C., Government in Crisis as Talk of Snap Elections Grows

Ultra-Orthodox parties say they will topple the government if their bill doesn’t get the green light; Likud minister tells Haaretz he thinks his colleagues won't compromise, predicts snap elections

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu on the plane heading for D.C., March 4, 2018
חיים צח / לע"מ

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to smooth out mounting tensions among his coalition partners and to reduce concerns that the Knesset will be dissolved and new elections called over a proposed draft bill. The contentious bill in question would shield ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from the mandatory draft into the Israeli military, and has inspired sore disgareements between government officials that have even transcended into threats over the budget.

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Despite Netanyahu’s attempts to quell the storm, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is digging in, demanding that two separate draft bills be approved along with the budget. Knesset members from centrist party Kulanu are also refusing to compromise, saying they insist on passing the budget without the draft bills.

Netanyahu was asked before leaving for Washington if the issue would end up in early elections. “There is no reason for this to happen - with some good will it doesn’t have to occur. I have the will and I hope my coalition partners have the same good will.”

United Torah Judaism chairman Yaakov Litzman with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset meeting, 2017.
olivier fitoussi

On Sunday morning, other Likud Knesset members joined Netanyahu in an attempt to assuage coalition spirits. “We’re not looking for elections” said MK Yoav Kish in a radio interview. “We think we have a good government which should continue.” MK Miki Zohar added, in another radio interview, that “going to elections now is not a wise move.” He said that there were coalition partners with whom agreements needed to be reached, and that there was no desire for new elections.

Despite Netanyahu’s attempts to reach such agreements, Kulanu Knesset members clarified on Sunday morning that their party would not compromise and would not agree to bind passing the budget to the approval of the draft law proposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties. “Agreements must be respected and the government shouldn’t operate under threats of blackmail,” said Kulanu Knesset faction leader MK Roy Folkman. He added that the budget must be passed on the date agreed upon earlier, before the end of the Knesset’s winter session. Economy Minister Eli Cohen (Kulanu) said in a radio interview that “it would be wrong to go to elections but we state clearly that the budget cannot be turned into a means of political extortion.”

These statements by Kulanu Knesset members followed an earlier statement by Kulanu leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who referred on Saturday to threats by the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties that they would not support the budget if their draft law was not approved first. Kahlon said that if the budget did not pass this week as planned he would leave the government, thereby toppling it.

Also on Sunday, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman repeated his demand from last week, calling for the passage of the draft bill. In a report in the daily Hamodia, associated with the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, one of the two parties comprising United Torah Judaism, Litzman dug in, saying that “the council of Torah sages has instructed us to get the bill passed before the budget is approved, therefore I cannot do otherwise.” Litzman, according to this report, said he was expecting all his coalition partners to support the draft bill if they wanted this coalition to survive.

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis protesting against mandatory military service as the Israeli government faces crisis over draft bill.
Olivier Fitoussi

MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) was also interviewed on Kan Bet radio, and referred to Litzman’s words. “I believe he reflects the decision of the council of sages, which dictates what we say in this matter” he said. “If there is no agreement he can’t go back to them and ask them what to do under these circumstances. I hope a solution is found, since most coalition members want one.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid related to the crisis, saying that “the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) are exploiting Netanyahu’s weakness due to the investigations, in order to trample the secular, religious and observant sectors in Israel.” He added that this bill is “an insult to IDF soldiers, to the state and to the Torah. In no place in the Torah does it say that you can send others to die for you.”

A Likud minister told Haaretz that ultra-Orthodox Knesset members are refusing to compromise on this bill, adding that his assessment was that the government would fall and elections would be moved up. He said that “the coalition has been taken hostage by internal conflicts within the Gur Hasidic community.”

This cabinet member said that Interior Minister Arye Dery and MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) were not interested in a coalition crisis over the bill but were allowing Deputy Health Minister Litzman to “climb trees.” 
“The Haredim have stopped behaving reasonably and are unwilling to accept any compromise” he stated. Ultra-orthodox sources said on Saturday night that they had no lever except the budget with which to bring about the passage of draft laws, and that they would stick to their guns in not supporting the budget.

In addition, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev said on Saturday that “we’ve heard the threats issued by some of our coalition partners. I say to all of them: I know the prime minister is not interested in new elections but if you impose it I tell you that there is only one coalition member which doesn’t have to worry about elections. It’s called the Likud. We enjoy high levels of public trust so sham pressure on us will be pointless.”

The ultra-Orthodox parties demanded that a vote on two draft bills take place this Wednesday, but the vote has been postponed. The first bill they want is a Basic Law [equivalent to a constitutional law] relating to Torah studies, deeming them more important than the principle of equality [of obligations], with the law also stipulating  that the High Court of Justice will be unable to rule against draft arrangements. The second bill will allow the defense minister to defer military service for yeshiva students from the age of 18 to 26, in order to allow them to complete their studies. The bill also defines goals and quotas for drafting yeshiva students.

Over the weekend Tourism Minister Yariv Levin continued his efforts to resolve the crisis over these bills but to no avail. Levin heads a committee consisting of all coalition parties, which was established after the current law was struck down by the High Court last September. In a meeting last week between Netanyahu and the heads of the Haredi parties it was decided to resume this committee’s activities, but it has not met yet since no preliminary consensus has been reached.