Netanyahu Threatens Early Elections if Compromise Not Reached on IDF Draft Bill

PM gives Knesset two weeks to pass law; if not, the target for an election date is in mid-February

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office, Sunday, August 12, 2018.
Jim Hollander/Pool via AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he will call for new elections on a set date if no agreement on the proposed conscription law is reached within two weeks. Sources close to Netanyahu said the target date would be in mid-February.

He made the statement at a meeting of coalition party heads after asking all spokesmen and assistants to leave the room, leaving only Ministers Arye Dery, Moshe Kahlon, and Naftali Bennett, coalition chairman David Amsalem and MK Moshe Gafni in the room with him. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was not at the meeting, and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman has been boycotting the meetings of coalition heads as a matter of course.

The premier’s remark, made in anger, was directed at Dery and Gafni, who responded that the ball was in Litzman’s court.

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Sources close to the prime minister say he is determined to control the timing of the next elections, and that he will not allow passage of a new conscription law to be dragged out until the deadline set by the High Court of Justice, which is in early December. If he determines that no agreement can be reached, he will try to schedule elections for mid-February, the sources said. The Knesset is now in recess; to dissolve it there must be a law passed with the support of 61 MKs.

The conscription bill now being debated, as published by the Defense Ministry two months ago, does not include criminal sanctions against draft evaders. At the same time, it calls for the state to reduce its support for yeshivas that do not meet recruitment targets. The ultimate goal of the law is 6,844 conscripts by 2027, with the defense minister having the authority to exempt service candidates age 21 and over for religious reasons, without any link to the recruitment goals.

Litzman said in response to Netanyahu’s warning: “The approval of a revised conscription law is one of the main things that were the basis for the coalition and the current government. We have no interest in elections, but we cannot compromise on the substantive, fundamental issue of preserving the status of full-time yeshiva students. The various proposals will be brought before the Council of Torah Sages, who will decide the matter, and we will do as they instruct us.”

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Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said, “A reminder to Netanyahu: You have a majority to pass the conscription law with the votes of Yesh Atid. There is no reason to be humiliated again by Litzman and [his leader] the Gerrer rebbe. Any compromise is surrender. It is inconceivable that people who evade military service will decide on the future of IDF conscription. The defense minister has promised the IDF and the public not to change a word of this law, which will cause more ultra-Orthodox men to enlist and more ultra-Orthodox men to enter the labor market.”

In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down the existing conscription law, saying it disproportionately undermined the principle of equality. The court gave the Knesset a year to pass a new law. Last week the court extended the deadline until December 2. The state had asked for an extension until next April.