Amid IDF impasse, Netanyahu coalition calls to dissolve Knesset, call for elections

As Lapid backtracks on past support “in petty politics at the expense of the IDF and Israeli public” in a last-ditch effort to exploit the ultra-Orthodox draft impasse, Netanyahu’s gov’t decides to dissolve the parliament and call for early elections.

By i24NEWS


An emergency meeting of the heads of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners on Monday in a last-ditch effort to resolve an impasse over contentious legislation regulating military conscription for ultra-Orthodox Jews ended in a decision to dissolve parliament and call early elections.

The meeting, which got underway shortly after 1:00 p.m. local time at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, was called a day before Israel’s parliament was due to begin preparing a bill on the contentious issue for its final readings with less than a month left to pass a law on the matter under a Supreme Court-imposed deadline.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the nation. – TV screenshot

“Out of national and budgetary responsibility, the leaders of the coalition parties decided unanimously to dissolve the Knesset and go to new elections at the beginning of April after a four-year term,” coalition heads announced in a statement distributed by a spokesman for Netanyahu’s Likud party said at the conclusion of the meeting.

The announcement was made hours after Yair Lapid, chairman of the opposition Yesh Atid faction, said that his party would vote against the proposed law saying that Netanyahu had “surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox because he is afraid of them. We are done being suckers.”

Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman — who is now part of the opposition following his resignation as defense minister last month — had in recent days appeared to waver on past support for the bill in a possible attempt to capitalize on the coalition’s current vulnerability and spark snap elections.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (center right), then Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (center left) & IDF Chief of Staff, Lt.Gen. Gadi Eizenkot (r) convene a meeting with top Israeli military & security officials (left side) at IDF HQ on 20 Jul 2018 – Photo/ Ariel Harmony,Ministry of Defense

Liberman’s party also announced Monday that it was stepping back to re-examine its support for the bill.

After failing to meet a previously extended December 2 deadline to legislate the matter, the government was granted yet another postponement giving it until mid-January to end discord and pass a law setting forth guidelines for the conscription of ultra-Orthodox seminary students into the Israeli military.

Netanyahu’s fragile coalition — which hinged on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties — had been bitterly divided on the issue since last September, when Israel’s High Court struck down the exemption of ultra-Orthodox students from the country’s mandatory military draft as unconstitutional and charged the government with passing new guidelines for their enlistment.

Lawmakers failure to pass a law on the matter would make all members of the ultra-Orthodox community subject to the draft when they turn 18 like the rest of Israel’s young Jewish citizens.

Nachal Haredi (which is a special unit for ultra-Orthodox men) made up mostly from Haredi yeshiva students from abroad who come to Israel to join the IDF. – Photo courtesy IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

A draft law put forth on the recommendations of a Ministry of Defense committee report earlier this year proposes minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox enlistment that, if not met, would result in financial penalties on rabbinical seminaries, called ‘yeshivas’, which fall below the threshold.

But ultra-Orthodox parties had been divided over the proposal. While the Shas party and the Degel Hatorah faction within the United Torah Judaism (UJT) party called for the bill to pass as it is, UTJ’s Agudat Yisrael faction was demanding that changes be made.

The ruling coalition has very little room for manoeuvre in parliament following the resignation of major coalition partner Avigdor Liberman, leader of nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu earlier this month, who stepped down as defense minister and pulled his party from government.

The coalition now holds just a one-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament, and the opposition of any faction within the coalition to the bill would topple the government.

Netanyahu’s Likud party had said in a statement ahead of the coalition meeting that it hoped Liberman and Lapid would not reduce the conscription debate to “petty politics”.

“The draft law is a national matter of top importance, and Liberman and Lapid must not turn it into petty politics,” the statement said, adding that Netanyahu was committed to the law, as brought forth by Liberman and supported by Lapid, without any change.

MK Yair Lapid, then Minister of Finance, speaking at the 14th Annual Herzliya Conference – Screenshot

“This is test time for Liberman and Lapid: Will they honor their commitment to the public and support this important law, or will they engage in petty politics at the expense of the IDF and Israeli public? The choice is in their hands.”

Members of the ultra-Orthodox community, who represent about 10 percent of the Israeli population and live in compliance with a strict interpretation of Jewish laws, have been exempt from army service since the founding of the state.

Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, granted the initial exemption while Israel was fighting for its existence. The ultra-Orthodox, or “Haredim”, said they would be an army for God.

Over time, the number of yeshiva students exploded, and with that, political considerations led to expanded exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox. This caused an ever-widening rift in Israeli society – a society in which secular and religious Zionist Jews serve in the military, while the ultra-Orthodox study scripture.

Their draft exemption has long remained a controversial issue in Israel, and the government has made efforts to compel ultra-Orthodox Jews to either serve in the military or perform national civilian service.


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