Netanyahu: No Need to Call Early Elections Over ultra-Orthodox Draft Bill

Ultra-Orthodox won't get a better conscription bill, prime minister tells Likud ministers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 14, 2018.
Ohad Zwigenberg

At a meeting with the cabinet ministers from his Likud party on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was no need to resort to early Knesset elections over disagreements in the coalition about proposed legislation on the conscription of draft-age ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

Prior legislation on the students’ exemption from the draft was struck down in court as discriminatory in favor of the ultra-Orthodox community.

“This is a good coalition,” the prime minister said. “If we wanted, we could go to elections. It could be done for all kinds of reasons. We don’t need the subject of the conscription bill.” By law Knesset elections must be held in November of next year at the latest.

In response to a comment at the meeting that the conscription bill could be passed with support from the opposition Yesh Atid party, Netanyahu said: “The ultra-Orthodox will not get a conscription bill better than this.” One minister remarked that the ultra-Orthodox parties would be able to get a bill on the same terms passed after the election, a suggestion that Netanyahu took issue with, saying that this was “absolutely not certain.”

At Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu expressed support for the pending version of the conscription bill. “The bill needs to pass, and the time has come to put it behind us for everyone’s benefit.”

He called on the Council of Torah Sages of the Agudat Ysrael, one of the two factions of United Torah Judaism, which was due to convene later on Sunday to decide its stance on the legislation, to support the bill. Agudat Yisrael is the Hasidic faction of United Torah Judaism in the Knesset, headed by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.

Calling it legislation that balances the army’s needs and those of the ultra-Orthodox public, he urged the cabinet to support the legislation “for the good of the country, the good of the ultra-Orthodox public, the good of ultra-Orthodox-secular relations.”

In June, the Agudat Yisrael Council of Torah Sages instructed its representatives in the Knesset to resign from the government coalition over the legislation, but in July, it ordered its Knesset members to defer their resignations. Sunday’s meeting of the Council of Torah Sages was scheduled to come to a further decision on the issue.

Since the prior law on the subject was struck down in court, if the Knesset fails to pass the legislation, it is expected to dissolve itself and hold early elections. The High Court of Justice ruled that new legislation must be passed by December 2.

The proposed legislation includes new targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription into the army and enlistment in national service programs, increasing gradually from year to year. It includes economic sanctions against yeshivas that don’t meet the conscription targets as well as benefits for those who enlist. The bill is based on recommendations from a panel that examined the issue. The recommendations were accepted by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.