After Talks With Netanyahu, ultra-Orthodox Party Optimistic on Reaching Compromise on Draft Bill

Earlier, Netanyahu's Haredi coalition partners rejected a proposed compromise on the bill, which lies at the center of an ongoing coalition crisis

FILE PHOTO: Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu, August 2016.
Emil salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with United Torah Judaism Chairman Yaakov Litzman Sunday evening and discussed the details of the draft bill, which has been at the center of a coalition crisis that has threatened to break apart the government.

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After the meeting, confidants of Litzman said they were optimistic about the chances for a proposed compromise on the bill to go through. 

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, however, must decide whether to insist on passing a version of the law to be drawn up by the defense establishment, which would end the compromise efforts and bring the prospect of snap elections closer, the confidants said.

Earlier on Sunday, ultra-Orthodox coalition partners of Netanyahu’s government rejected a proposed compromise on the bill.

The Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Yisrael, which holds decisive influence in the United Torah Judaism party, rejected the bill in its most recent form. The main reason is their opposition to a clause stating that if the ultra-Orthodox community doesn’t meet the recruitment goals, the law will be canceled and yeshiva students will be required to enlist.

Sources from ultra-Orthodox parties who spoke to Haaretz said they realized Saturday after meeting with the prime minister that he intends to head for snap elections. It is likely that this understanding led the rabbis to oppose the offer that was put on the table.

“If there had been a reasonable offer and Netanyahu had devoted himself to solving the crisis, it’s possible that the Hasidic rabbis would have been willing to compromise,” a source in Agudath Yisrael said.

According to the source, “as soon as the offer at hand is insufficient and the prime minister doesn’t seem to really be taking actions to prevent the dissolution of the government, the rabbis understand that they have no one to talk to and that’s why they didn’t budge from their stance.”

Meanwhile, Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay announced that he would support the snap elections, and that he wouldn’t help the coalition partners postpone the elections to September.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid also weighed in on the issue in a tweet Sunday, stating that his party “will not sit in any government whose prime minister is under indictment. Under no condition.” 

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) responded to the coalition crisis at a conference of the Israel Democracy Institute and the weekly Makor Rishon Sunday evening. “Our hope is not yet lost, this crisis is solvable,” she said, adding that the Likud lawmakers she spoke with also don’t want early elections.

FILE PHOTO: Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaking at Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, February 20, 2018.
Diego Mittelberg

“It’s not as if we’ll get a better government if we hold elections now,” Shaked said. “I spoke with all of the party heads, except for Netanyahu, and they also don’t want to go to elections. No one understands what would come of it except a waste of billions of shekels and holding up important reforms. ... If we go to early elections, there won’t be a military draft law the way the Haredim want it.”

Netanyahu adjourned a meeting midday Sunday of the coalition heads due to the absence of Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Litzman.

In interviews with Israeli radio programs Sunday morning, Habayit Hayehudi chariman Naftali Bennett said the crisis was “imaginary,” adding that it was “about Lieberman, and not about the draft itself.” 

“This is the dynamic of someone seeking a new round of elections,” he charged. “If the prime minister wants elections, we will hold elections. But they will be elections called due to personal reasons and not ideological ones.”

FILE PHOTO: Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman  with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, October 23, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The education minister added that he will demand the defense portfolio, and might consider running for the premiership against Netanyahu in the next election.

Lieberman had ratcheted up his rhetoric on Saturday prior to the nighttime meeting with the coalition heads, tweeting: “In life, there is a moment where you have to go with what you believe in, and not with what’s profitable. This is that moment.” 

Sources in the Yisrael Beitenu party clarified the tweet by saying that the party was “pursuing our course of action without blinking.” On Friday, Lieberman wrote that “the proposed bill that’s being assembled right now is not a compromise, but a surrender to an act of extortion. Anybody who wants to give into extortion can do so.”

The meeting Saturday night concluded with Netanyahu presenting three conditions to the coalition leaders: framing a bill on the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men into the army that would be accepted by both the ultra-Orthodox and the attorney general; agreement of the centrist Kulanu party to vote for the bill when it is presented in the Knesset, and a public commitment by Lieberman and the other coalition heads to remain in the coalition.

According to individuals present at the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated that he does not want elections, and expressed his displeasure at Lieberman’s statement that he would not support any bill that the army was not involved in framing. 

On Sunday, Lieberman said, “We haven’t heard of any ultimatum, we haven’t created any crisis, and with that we aren’t ready to live with the reality that someone is holding a gun to your head. It won’t happen, and we will only support a bill that will solidify the IDF and the defense establishment.”

About Bennett’s comments, Lieberman said, “I really think that there has to be a limit to all the nonsense and defamations that one can expect from a coalition member. Apparently there is someone else who is motivated by other things.”

Before Sunday night’s meeting, sources in Likud said Netanyahu had demanded that coalition heads commit publicly to stay in the government until the next scheduled elections in November 2019, as a condition for the current government to continue. Netanyahu made this demand to ensure they will remain at his side in the government if he is indicted, source said.

Police have recommended that the attorney general indict Netanyahu for bribery in the cigars-and-champagne (Case 1000) and Yedioth Ahronoth (Case 2000) affairs.