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Netanyahu buys time in coalition crisis as committee okays draft exemption bill

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, pictured with then-deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011.
AP Photo/Uriel Sinai, Pool
Threat of elections still loom: Liberman steadfast in opposition to law, AG said ready to kill PM's compromise

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly averted -- for now -- a meltdown of his ruling coalition government as a legislative committee on Monday approved a draft bill to exempt religious Jews from military conscription.

Netanyahu’s fragile coalition was sent into a tailspin last week when head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party Yaakov Litzman threatened not to support the government’s 2019 state budget if the exemptions bill was not approved, putting them at loggerheads with Defense Minister and head of the secular Yisrael Beytenu party Avigdor Liberman, who vowed to vote down the legislation.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister and Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon said he would step down from his post if the state budget failed to pass.

Approval of the draft legislation by the Knesset's Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Monday morning came as part of a compromise reached between Netanyahu and leaders of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners during last-ditch negotiations on Sunday evening.

Thomas COEX (AFP)

As part of the compromise, the draft law would be put before the Knesset for a first vote this coming Wednesday, before the state budget is passed, and then shelved until the next session of parliament.

Continued work on the bill before its second and third readings will be done in coordination with the Ministry of Defense and Attorney General, as had been demanded by Liberman.

The crisis seemed to be cooling as of late Sunday, when it was reported that the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Yisrael, who wield enormous influence over UTJ -- the second-largest ultra-Orthodox party -- approved the compromise with Netanyahu.

But the looming threat of early elections was far from quelled, as Liberman and his party fellows remained steadfast in their rejection of the law and reports said that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was expected to reject Netanyahu's hard-fought compromise.

Thomas COEX (AFP)

Yisrael Beytenu continued to vow to reject any compromise regarding the legislation, insisting that only the defense ministry together with the military can draft an ultra-Orthodox conscription bill.

In its first reaction to the compromise, Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker Oded Forer signaled that the party would not support any iteration of a draft exemption law not supported by the defense ministry and said that the faction, led by Liberman, would quit the coalition if the bill is eventually passed into law.

“We will oppose the conscription law,” Forer told Israel Radio on Monday. “There is no room for compromise at the expense of the security of Israel at the whim of some rabbi.”

Another lawmaker from the party, Robert Ilatov, told the Keshet TV channel that the party would oppose the bill and appeal to have it struck down.

Mandelblit, meanwhile, is expected to only defend the law in court after it undergoes significant changes by the Justice Ministry ahead of its second and third readings.


The compromise deal was also rejected by Yesh Atid opposition party chief Yair Lapid, who called it "an insult".

“The new version of the ‘draft evasion’ law is an insult to the IDF and an insult to conscripts,” Lapid wrote on Twitter. “According to the wording, the ultra-Orthodox will join the army if they feel like it. If they don’t, they simply won’t show up. This is a national disgrace.”

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 service since the founding of the state.

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.

On Thursday, a violent demonstration by ultra-Orthodox Israelis in Jerusalem led to clashes with the security forces.

Ultra-Orthodox parties form a central plank in Netanyahu's ruling coalition government, and the leader has sparked anger with his acquiescence to the groups on a range of issues.

The crisis follows speculation over whether Netanyahu wants early polls to bolster his political standing ahead of his possible indictment for bribery in the coming months.

Some in Netanyahu's right-wing coalition suggested the premier was deliberately allowing the crisis to worsen to expedite elections for personal reasons.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said he wants the coalition to last its entire term, which ends in November 2019.


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