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This Hot Potato Threatens Netanyahu's Government Even Before It's Formed

Both the ultra-Orthodox parties and Lieberman are up in arms

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File photo: Ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrate against proposed draft bill, Bnei Brak, Israel, December 10, 2018.
File photo: Ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrate against proposed draft bill, Bnei Brak, Israel, December 10, 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod

The main challenge facing the government Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to form is the enactment of a new military conscription bill. Already, this bill is threatening the establishment of the next government.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 23Credit: Haaretz

Netanyahu will have to find a formula that can bridge the gaps on this issue between former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who wants to return to this job and enact the conscription bill he submitted last term – and the ultra-Orthodox parties, which oppose the bill.

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On Monday, Lieberman said that if he’s asked to give up the conscription bill, he’d rather force new elections. But Shas and United Torah Judaism have said they won’t compromise on what they consider “core issues,” which include the conscription law. Moshe Gafni, who heads one of the two parties comprising the UTJ joint ticket, said that one of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ main goals in the next Knesset is enacting a law that would exempt yeshiva students from conscription.

Lieberman’s bill, which was drafted by the defense establishment, passed the first of three required parliamentary votes in July. It did so with support from one opposition party, Yesh Atid, whose chairman, Yair Lapid, said the bill’s basic principles were similar to those of a law his own party pushed through the previous Knesset.

File photo: Avigdor Lieberman speaks at a Yisrael Beiteinu meeting in Jerusalem, April 15, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Lieberman’s bill initially sets a target of drafting 3,348 ultra-Orthodox men into the Israel Defense Forces and 648 into civilian national service. The target would rise by eight percent a year until 2020, after which it would increase by six and a half percent a year. The final target, slated to be hit in 2027, is 6,844 ultra-Orthodox men in military and civilian service.

The bill would also impose financial penalties on yeshivas that don’t meet their enlistment targets. It doesn’t explicitly impose any criminal sanctions, but Yesh Atid maintained last year that criminal sanctions were implied by a provision saying the law would expire if yeshivas repeatedly failed to meet the enlistment targets.

If the law expired, the ultra-Orthodox would automatically be subject to the same conscription law as everyone else, meaning they could be sent to prison for draft-dodging.

The bill also permits the defense minister to grant an exemption from service on religious grounds to anyone over 21, even if the enlistment targets haven’t been met.

But the ultra-Orthodox parties object in principle to the idea that anyone studying Torah should be drafted, and they have numerous specific objections to Lieberman’s bill. In particular, they object to the possibility of the law expiring and leaving yeshiva students vulnerable to criminal sanctions. They say that if the enlistment targets aren’t met, the law should return to the cabinet for further consideration rather than lapsing automatically.

They also object to the financial penalties. In addition, they want the enlistment targets significantly reduced.

File photo: United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman, center, speaks at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, April 15, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The ultra-Orthodox parties have very little room to maneuver, because they face stiff internal opposition within their own communities. The so-called Jerusalem faction, which has staged violent demonstrations against the conscription bill in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, objects to any cooperation whatsoever with a government seeking to pass any kind of conscription law. Instead, it demands scrapping enlistment targets entirely and letting anyone who declares that Torah study is his profession be exempt from the draft.

Because the bill has already passed its first vote, the Knesset can vote to pick it up at the same stage of the legislative process where it left off. The ultra-Orthodox parties, which have 16 seats, will vote against that idea, but some of the opposition parties may support it.

It’s still not clear whether the Kahol Lavan party, which has 35 seats in the next Knesset, will support the bill or oppose it. Though Lapid supported the bill in its first vote, he announced in December that his party – which is now part of the Kahol Lavan joint ticket – would oppose it in the second and third votes. “Netanyahu capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox because he’s afraid of them,” he said at the time.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see Kahol Lavan, which is led by three former IDF chiefs of staff in addition to Lapid, opposing a bill drafted by the defense establishment.

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