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Israeli cabinet members say they oppose Ultra-Orthodox conscription plan in threat to coalition government

Two of the three members of Israel’s war cabinet signalled their opposition to government proposals on the recruitment of ultra-Orthodox men into the military, setting up a potential collapse of the government coalition.

The Israeli Supreme Court had given the government until the end of March to explain why there is no legislation regarding the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as Haredim, and why the government continues to fund Haredi religious schools, or yeshivas, while exempting young Haredi men from military service.

An outline of the Israeli government’s plans for reforming the exemption emerged over the weekend, but it appears as though the government will once again attempt to delay that legislation.

“I do not stand behind the emerging proposal and will not support it,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said as he departed on a trip to Washington, according to CNN affiliate Channel 11 (Kan News). “In the meetings that took place, the parties unfortunately refused to be flexible, and fortified themselves in their political positions.”

Gallant reiterated Sunday that he would only support legislation that had broad political support – including from Benny Gantz of the National Unity party, who, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the third member of Israel’s War Cabinet.

“My position has not changed,” Gallant said. “I will not be a party to any proposal that is not agreed upon by all parts of the coalition. And the security system under my leadership will not submit it to legislation.”

Gantz himself – seen as a possible successor to Netanyahu – said he would leave the government if the plans become law.

“The passing of such a law is a red line in routine, and in times of war it is as if a black flag flies over it,” he said.

“The people cannot put up with it, the Knesset will not be able to vote for it, and my friends and I will not be able to be members of the emergency government if such legislation passes the Knesset and enters the law book of the State of Israel.”

Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute, said that it was “quite clear that Gantz’s party wants to resign from the coalition – and this might be a reason for them.”

The government is planning to attempt to again delay the Supreme Court’s deadline for that legislation this week, according to Malach and Israeli media. Were it to be delayed, the government would attempt to keep the status quo exemption in place with the understanding that it would, over the coming months, work on permanent legislation.

Israeli media on Sunday reported that the government proposal would consist of three parts. First, the government would raise the age until which a Haredi man must remain a yeshiva student to stay exempt from 26 to 35. The government would also set up special Haredi battalions in the IDF and positions in the country’s emergency services and government offices, as well as ensure that Haredi men who do not enlist do not face criminal sanctions.

Malach said that “there is a high chance that the Supreme Court will say that it’s not acceptable.”

A longstanding debate

Israel has, since its founding, exempted Haredim from mandatory military service. In 1998, the Supreme Court ripped up the longstanding exemption, telling the government that allowing Haredim to get out of conscription violated equal protection principles. In the decades since, successive governments and Knessets have tried to solve the issue, only to be told again and again by the court that their efforts were illegal.

Netanyahu may not need Gallant and Gantz’s support to kick the can down that road, as he could still command majority support in the Knesset with his pre-October coalition. But the political consequences could still be profound, and lead his wartime coalition partners to resign, Malach said – potentially setting off a cascade of resignations.

“This issue might be a good reason for resigning,” he said. “Because according to Israeli public opinion, there is great anger about this future legislation.”

In a February poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, 64% of Israeli respondents and 70% of Jewish Israeli respondents said that the Haredi exemption “should be changed.” The pollsters spoke with Israeli adults – 600 in Hebrew and 150 in Arabic.

During his remarks on Sunday, Gallant said that there was “still time to sit together and form a joint proposal.”

“I again call on the Prime Minister and Minister Benny Gantz to take advantage of the remaining time and forge a broad consensus regarding the conscription law, for the benefit of the IDF and for the benefit of the State of Israel.”

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