Explained: Why Israel's Draft Bill Is Stirring Up Netanyahu's Government

Why was the old law overturned, what is the bill's new formulation, and could Netanyahu call early elections?

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Sarah and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with MK Yaakov Litzman, February 2018.
Sarah and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with MK Yaakov Litzman, February 2018.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed coalition heads on Sunday that if they wouldn’t reach an agreement on the conscription bill within two weeks, he would call for early elections.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is leading the hawkish line among the ultra-Orthodox representatives, announced in response that he had no interest in elections but that he could not compromise on the issue. Netanyahu’s ultimatum followed the decision by the High Court of Justice to extend through December 2 the validity of the current draft law to allow the Knesset time to pass a new law. The bill was approved on its first reading, but the Haredi parties oppose it.

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Associates of Netanyahu predicted in recent weeks that elections would be held around February or March of 2019, based on understandings that would be reached with coalition partners. The coalition hoped the High Court would calm down the government by extending it seven months until the end of the Knesset winter session in April. The complex fixing of the new draft law will likely be postponed until after the next government is formed.

Protest against Israel's draft bill in Bnei Brak, last week.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

What did the overturned draft bill include?

The High Court last September overturned the draft bill that arranges exemptions for yeshiva students from military service. The law, which replaced the Tal Law in 2014, was meant originally to increases the number of Haredi recruits, and allowed them to postpone service until age 26, at which point they would receive a full exemption. A so-called adjustment period was set to last through June 2017, after which the number of draftees would rise in line with draft targets, or else the postponement arrangement would be canceled. After the Haredi parties entered the coalition in place of the centrist party Yesh Atid, the adjustment period was extended through 2020, and criminal sanctions that were set for anyone who didn’t serve were repealed.

Why was the law overturned?

The main flaw in the wording, which was overturned, was that every yeshiva student during the first six years of the law could do as he wished. Enlistment was voluntary and absent of sanctions, in contrast to all other candidates for military service. The ruling stated that the law would be invalidated within a year to allow the Knesset to prepare for repealing and replacing the law with a new one. Justice Yitzhak Amit wrote in his ruling, “The law discriminates between people and between blood.” The president of the Supreme Court at the time, Miriam Naor, ruled that the results did not show sufficient correlation between the new draft arrangement and the matter of reducing inequality in the burden of military service.

What is the new formulation of the bill?

The wording of the new bill, approved in its first reading, was formulated by the security establishment. The bill sets an initial goal of drafting 3,348 Haredim in 2018. The new bill would increase the number of Haredi draftees by 8 percent each year through 2020. Likewise, it sets an initial goal of adding 648 Haredim to national service, rising by 6.5 percent a year through 2023 to 5,635. The draft rate would rise 5 percent annually from 2024 through 2027 to 6,844 Haredim. There is no mention in the bill of criminal sanctions for youths who do not get drafted. Within Yesh Atid, which supports the new bill, officials assert that the bill includes criminal sanctions by implication, because it would expire if the yeshivas don’t meet the draft quotas. Expiration of the law would lead to criminal sanctions on yeshiva students, based on rules regarding the draft of all eligible citizens in general. The bill calls for creating a system of civil sanctions like denying state benefits, while offering incentives to those who submit to the draft like raising subsistence payments and covering the tuition of a bachelor’s degree for anyone who completes full military service.

What are the Haredi parties demanding, and are they acting as one bloc?

The Haredi parties are divided on how to act regarding the conscription bill. Degel Hatorah and Shas think they can live with the proposed law, subject to some minor changes. But Agudat Yisrael, the Hasidic faction of the United Torah Judaism party, believes the clause stating that if the 85 percent of the quotas aren’t met within three years the law will be voided is unacceptable, because practically speaking that would result in criminal sanctions against yeshiva students. Shas is demanding that the proposal state that if the quotas aren’t met, the law doesn’t expire but would be returned to the Knesset.

Agudat Yisrael’s vehement opposition to the bill gave the other factions no choice but to agree in order to present a uniform Haredi front. Degel Hatorah and Shas would have abstained from voting on the law on first reading, if it had not had a secure majority due to Yesh Atid’s support from the opposition.

How can Netanyahu dissolve the Knesset?

If there’s a decision to go to elections, one would expect the government to dissolve the Knesset by passing a law to dissolve the Knesset. Such a law requires a 61-MK majority, which would be relatively easy for Netanyahu to obtain under the current circumstances. Other methods, such as a successful no-confidence motion or the resignation of the prime minister (which leads to the resignation of the entire cabinet), could allow other parties to try to form a new coalition headed by a different MK on the basis of the existing Knesset.

When will the Knesset dissolve?

It’s reasonable to assume that the Knesset would dissolve itself sometime in November, and not before, to give the coalition chance to pass some significant bills into law after the summer recess and before elections are called.

When would elections be held?

The timetable for holding elections is relatively flexible; if the prime minister works to pass a special law to dissolve the Knesset, elections must be held no later than five months after the bill is passed. Under any other method of dissolving the Knesset, elections take place within only 90 days.

Knesset sources assume that elections will not take place before the local elections are over. The first round of that balloting is scheduled for October 30th and the second round, where necessary, on November 13. In theory, local elections could be postponed in favor of the national elections, or the two votes could be held on the same day. Postponing the local elections, however, would cause financial loss to the candidates and the parties. Holding both elections together would assure a higher turnout, but this could undermine the percentage of votes given to the larger parties.

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