Haredi, Likud ministers fail to reach deal over draft exemption dispute

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Tel Aviv, Israel February 14, 2018
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Tel Aviv, Israel February 14, 2018. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed hope on Sunday that his coalition partners would end their disputes and avoid early elections, but they did nothing to realize those hopes.

Meetings were never scheduled on Sunday between the heads of United Torah Judaism and Shas and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), who was appointed by Netanyahu to mediate the disputes while he is in the United States.

“We’re not going to early elections,” Netanyahu said as he addressed the crisis over the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] conscription legislation before boarding a plane at Ben-Gurion Airport. “There is no reason for this to happen, and with goodwill, it won’t. I have goodwill, and I hope our [coalition] partners do as well.”

Netanyahu said he still expected his government would remain in place until the regularly scheduled election date of November 2019. But later Sunday, his coalition partners hardened their positions rather than softening them.

United Torah Judaism leaders Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni continued to up the ante in the coalition standoff over Haredi exemptions for military service, with both politicians threatening to topple the government over the issue. Israeli media reports suggested an election would be held as soon as June or July rather than in late 2019 as planned.

Until Sunday, they were only asking to pass a preliminary reading of an anti-conscription bill. But now they are demanding that the legislation pass into law within two weeks, which is nearly impossible.

On the front page of the Hamodia newspaper on Sunday, which is strongly tied to the Gur Hassidic community to which Litzman belongs, Litzman was quoted as saying: “In accordance with the instructions” of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael… I will not be able to vote for the state budget as long as the enlistment law is not passed.”

He said passing an exemption law for Haredi military enlistment was an integral part of UTJ’s coalition agreement with Likud, and “we expect that all parties of the coalition support the law if they wish for the continuation of the coalition.”

UTJ is advancing a bill that would create a new basic law establishing Torah study as a supreme value in the State of Israel, which someone can undertake in lieu of military service.

Coalition partner Yisrael Beytenu has said it will not support such a law, while other members of the coalition parties, including Likud, have also expressed opposition to such legislation.

Litzman then told Army Radio that simply getting the law approved in a preliminary hearing was not enough, adding that the bill must be fully passed into law before he and his party would support the budget.

Failing that, Litzman said, “we will vote against the budget” if no new legislation for Haredi military-service exemptions is passed.

He added that UTJ was open to other proposals from coalition factions “if they are acceptable to us,” but “nothing else had been proposed so far.”

Should the coalition run out of time before the Knesset’s spring recess to complete the legislative process, Litzman said votes on the budget could be postponed for a couple of months.

Gafni said if the coalition fails to satisfy UTJ over the issue, then the party would bring down the government.

“We’ll wait and see,” he said Sunday morning at a session of the Knesset Finance Committee, which he chairs.

“Maybe it will work out. But if it doesn’t work out, then we’ll go to elections. What else can you do?” He added that he did not want to go to elections despite his claim that UTJ is rising in the polls.

Gafni said he had already postponed votes on the budget in the committee that were supposed to take place on Monday.

According to Likud sources, there has been no progress on finding a solution to the impasse since both Yisrael Beytenu and UTJ have refused to compromise on their positions. Sources in Yisrael Beytenu insisted that the party would not compromise on UTJ’s basic law, saying it was unacceptable and that it would not be allowed to pass into law.

Yisrael Beytenu also has a critical clause in its coalition agreement with Likud that says all religion and state issues must be decided first in an internal coalition agreement, which did not happen with UTJ’s law, a source said.

Speaking on Sunday night at a meeting in Lod of the Israel Press Council, President Reuven Rivlin, who is a former speaker of the Knesset, said the issue of Haredim serving in the army cannot be settled by coercion, but only by agreement.

Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett told MKs in his faction from Washington that it as a “fake crisis” that Netanyahu could easily resolve if he wanted to. Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay suggested that Netanyahu was initiating elections due to his multiple criminal investigations.

“The Haredim are taking advantage of Netanyahu’s weakness from the probes to trample the secular, religious Zionist and traditional public,” said Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid at the Tel Aviv train station, alongside a Yesh Atid activist wearing a Haredi costume.

A survey taken for Channel 10 by pollster Camille Fuchs found that if elections were held now, Likud would win 29 seats, Yesh Atid 24, Zionist Union and the Joint List 12 each, Bayit Yehudi 10, Meretz eight, Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu seven each, United Torah Judaism six and Shas five.

As reported by The Jerusalem Post