Israel's Top Court Grants Extension for Government to Pass New Bill on Drafting ultra-Orthodox

Existing law was slated to expire on Saturday ■ Government now has until mid-January to enact legislation and avoid early elections

File photo: Ultra-Orthodox demonstration protesting the proposed draft bill, Bnei Brak, July 19, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

The High Court of Justice granted on Sunday the state a six-week extension fo rthe annulment of a law allowing an exemption from the national military draft for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, which was slated to expire at midnight on Saturday night.

The government, which sought an extension until the end of the Knesset's winter term on March 31, now has until January 15 to pass new legislation on drafting ultra-Orthodox men to the military.

In September 2017, the court ruled that the existing law, which was crafted by the Defense Ministry, was unlawful, but said it would remain in force for another year to give the government time to enact new legislation. In July 2018, the government requested an extension until March  31, but the court agreed to push the deadline back only until December 1.

So far, the coalition has failed to find a legislative solution that all the parties it includes can support. Two of the three ultra-Orthodox parties – Degal Hatorah, which comprises half the United Torah Judaism joint ticket, and Shas – have agreed not to oppose the bill in exchange for a promise that far-reaching changes will be made to it after next year’s elections.

That means the bill, which has already passed its first Knesset vote, could theoretically be enacted with support from either Yesh Atid or Yisrael Beiteinu opposition parties.

Netanyahu meets with new Israel Defense Forces recruits, Tel Hashomer, November 26, 2018.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

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But Agudat Yisrael, the Hasidic wing of United Torah Judaism, has threatened to quit the coalition immediately if the bill passes in its current form. That would bring down the government and force early elections.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to change the bill, for fear that any changes would lead another coalition party, Kulanu, to oppose it. Until now, Kulanu hasn’t shown much interest in the bill, but has recently adopted a policy of delaying legislation on most issues in order to force early elections.

Agudat Yisrael Chairman Yaakov Litzman promised Netanyahu over the summer that the ultra-Orthodox parties would find it easier to reach a compromise on the bill after municipal elections on October 30. However, that promise has yet to be fulfilled, and currently, nobody in the coalition is concentrating on finding a solution.

The bill overturned by the High Court last year was meant to encourage more ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in the army. Although it allowed ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to defer service until the age of 26, at which point they could receive full exemption, it also said that if the number of ultra-Orthodox draftees would not increase over time, sanctions would eventually be imposed.

The proposed sanctions, however, would not kick in for another six years, whereas all other men are already subject to sanctions if they do not enlist. That time lag was cited by the court as the main reason for its ruling overturning the law.