Coalition leadership put United Torah Judaism and Shas’s attempts to preserve the ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service on hold Monday, after Yisrael Beytenu threatened to break up the coalition over the bill.
The proposed basic law would enshrine the Torah study as a supreme value in the State of Israel in order to protect the right of yeshiva students to not perform military service.
The legislation has been formulated by United Torah Judaism and Shas and several MKs from these parties, as well as by Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich, who co-sponsored the legislation. Haredi MKs put it on the agenda for an early vote on Wednesday, and said they would condition their support for the state budget on the coalition’s backing for the bill.
In a letter to coalition chairman David Amsalem (Likud) on Monday, Yisrael Beytenu faction chairman Robert Ilatov demanded that there not be a vote this week on the Haredi parties’ proposed legislation on the matter.
If it goes to a vote, Ilatov warned, the entire Yisrael Beytenu Party will vote against it, including Immigration Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, which would mean she is resigning from the government.
Yisrael Beytenu leader and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is not a Knesset member and therefore cannot take the same step.
“In the name of the Yisrael Beytenu faction, I demand that the enlistment bill not be brought up for discussion and a vote in the Knesset before it undergoes a comprehensive and organized discussion in the coalition and government, as accepted according to the coalition agreement,” Ilatov wrote.
The MK continued: “It is important to note that in this week’s meeting of coalition heads, the topic of Haredi conscription did not come up, and therefore, bringing up the bill is political thievery that we cannot accept.”
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon was also not enthused by the proposal, saying in a Kulanu faction meeting that the issue of Haredi enlistment should be coordinated with the Defense Ministry and not be brought as a private bill.
Amsalem ultimately decided to block the bill from going to a vote this week, and argued that Haredi parties would be violating the coalition agreement if they voted against the budget.
Earlier, Amsalem attempted to get a majority without Yisrael Beytenu. He asked Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky (Bayit Yehudi) not to move forward with a bill limiting the use of outdoor loudspeakers by houses of prayer, which would mostly impact mosques, in order to curry favor with the Joint List and try to convince them to skip the vote.
The Shas-UTJ bill comes after the Supreme Court ruled in September that the current exemption system was discriminatory and that the government must pass a new law within a year.
The Haredi parties have decided on advancing the legislation as a basic law in order to prevent the High Court of Justice from intervening and striking it down, as it did last year with the standard law passed by the current government in 2015, which afforded yeshiva students the right not to perform military service.
To become a basic law, the proposed legislation needs 61 votes to pass in Knesset and not just a simple majority.
The bill says “Torah study is a foundational value in the heritage of the Jewish people,” and that “the State of Israel, as a Jewish state, sees supreme importance in encouraging Torah study and Torah students.”
It adds that the state “will see in those who dedicate themselves to studying Torah for an extended period as someone who does substantial service for the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” meaning in lieu of military service.
The explanatory section of the bill claims that Torah study has been a foundational principle of the Jewish people since its inception, and that such study has been the guarantor of the continuation of the Jewish people.
The sponsors have argued that it would have been appropriate to enact the legislation outside of the framework of exemptions from IDF service.
However, they have stated explicitly that the law is designed to override the decision of the High Court of Justice, which ruled in September last year that blanket military service exemptions were discriminatory and harmed the principle of equality before the law.