Ultra-Orthodox conscription threatens to topple Israeli government

PNN / Bethlehem

A dispute between leaders of the right-wing coalition government and Ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset is threatening to topple the government and bring about an early election.

The argument stems from the absolution of laws that exempt yeshiva (Jewish religious) students from military conscription after a High Court ruling last year.

Ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, namely the Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties, are attempting to push through a bill to shield religious students by threatening to withhold support for the 2019 national budget.

The stranglehold put on the Knesset by the Ultra-Orthodox parties has divided leaders within the governing coalition, with both sides refusing to compromise.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) has demanded that two separate draft bills be put forward before the budget is passed.

‘The council of Torah sages has instructed us to get the bill passed before the budget is approved,’ Litzman said, according to the daily Hamodia, associated with the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, one of the two parties comprising the UTJ.

‘Therefore, I cannot do otherwise.’

The two bills pertain to the social importance and constitutional right of religious students, according to the Haaretz.

The first bill is a ‘Basic Law’ bill – similar to a constitutional bill – which concerns the importance of Torah studies. The bill stipulates that religious studies are to be deemed more important that equality.

As such the High Court would be stripped of its power to rule against military draft arrangements.

The second bill would allow the Minister of Army to defer the conscription service of yeshiva students from the standard age of 18 to 26, so that they can complete their studies.

Both bills are similar to ‘Basic Laws’ recently passed by the Knesset that highlight the importance of Judaism over democracy in Israeli society at a constitutional level.

Leaders of the centrist Kulanau party, on the other hand, are refusing to allow draft bills to be put forward before the passing of the budget.

‘Agreements must be respected and the government shouldn’t operate under threats of blackmail,’ said Kulanu party leader MK Roy Folkman.

‘It would be wrong to go to elections but we state clearly that the budget cannot be turned into a means of political extortion,’ said Economy Minister and Kalanau party member Eli Cohen in a radio interview on Sunday.

Minister of Finance and Kulanau party member Mosche Kahlon has threatened to leave the coalition should the budget not pass by the prescribed time.

In a twitter post on Saturday, Kahlon declared he would ‘fight to the end’ for the 2019 Budget.

Kahlon was widely seen as the ‘weak link’ in the coalition that could have brought about its collapse when charges were recommended against PM Netanyahu earlier this year.

Instead, Kahlon joined in with the chorus of Likud and right-wing coalition members who voiced their support for Netanyahu.

The current crisis highlights the fragility of the coalition in light of the possibility that Netanyhau may be indicted.

Last month, Israeli police released their recommendation that charges should be placed against PM Netanyahu.

The two cases, Case 1000 and Case 2000, as well as a third that is still ongoing, Case 4000, were the culmination of months of investigations that had grown increasing contentious.

Investigators were reportedly pressured by Netanyahu and the Likud party to disband the so-called ‘witch hunt’, while at the same time popular support for the anti-corruption movement grew.

Case 1000 sees Netanyahu accused of accepting lavish gifts in exchange for political favours – namely from Australian business tycoon James Packer and American-Israeli film-mogul Arnon Milchan.

Charges also pertain to earlier investigations into gifts received by Netanyahu’s wife, Sara Netanyahu.

Case 2000 refers to charges that Netanyahu introduced measures to curb the competition of Arnon Mozes, publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, in exchange for favourable coverage.

The police recommendations were sent to the Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit who will decided whether to proceed with prosecution.

Mandelbit’s decision is expected to be released in the coming months.

Should an early election be called, Netanyahu may stand to benefit from securing power before being indicted, should Mandelbit chose to do so, according to the Jerusalem Post.

‘Holding an early election could enable Netanyahu to gain a vote of confidence from the public ahead of Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision on whether to indict him on bribery charges,’ said political analysts for the Jerusalem Post, Gil Hoffman.

Conversely, an early election might amplify anti-corruption sentiment within the public and echoed by left-wing members of the Knesset.

The possibility of the leaks from on-going investigations, including Case 4000, could prove disastrous.

On Saturday night Netanyahu departed for a five-day trip to the Washington where he is expected to try to gage the position o the United States ahead of the release of their peace plan for the Middle East, dubbed the ‘Ultimate Deal.’

Netanyahu appeared unfazed by the political crises at home when he disembarked, remarking ‘we’re not going to early elections.’

‘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.’

Should the coalition remain steadfast, Netanyahu will not face re-election until November 2019.