Political sources claimed that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu intervened on Tuesday in the Knesset committee on haredi enlistment to prevent a key vote, owing to concerns that a deal existed between Bayit Yehudi and the haredi parties that could have endangered the coalition.
It had been widely assumed the committee would finally vote on whether or not to impose a legal obligation for military service on haredi men, an issue which has generated significant conflict within the coalition.
Netanyahu’s alleged intervention scuppered the chance for a vote on the issue, however, and further coalition talks will take place before the clause in the legislation will be voted on.
Yesh Atid party chairman and Finance Minister Yair Lapid has made plain that he will leave the coalition if the new law does not impose legally mandated military service on haredi men.
At the same time, the status of the hesder yeshiva program for national-religious men, which is also included in the draft bill, is vulnerable due to widespread political opposition to the 16-month military service currently required of such men, as opposed to the 36 months for everyone else.
According to speculation by political sources, Netanyahu believed that Bayit Yehudi had agreed to oppose a legal obligation for military service in return for the two haredi representatives on the committee voting in favor of keeping the service in the hesder program at just 17 months.
Shortly before the committee was scheduled to vote on the hesder issue, the Likud’s representative on the panel, MK Tzachi Hanegbi, left the room. Without him Bayit Yehudi could not have prevented hesder service from being significantly lengthened.
Committee chairwoman and Bayit Yehudi MK Ayelet Shaked then postponed a vote on the issue.
Political sources said Hanegbi’s departure from the committee room sent an implied message from the prime minister that no votes on the central issues of the bill could be held before further discussion within the coalition.
In response to these claims, the Prime Minister’s Office officially denied that any instructions had been given to the committee to halt the debates and votes on the various clauses of the legislation and said the panel was free to continue to vote as normal.
Meanwhile, officials from the haredi parties denied that there was any such deal with Bayit Yehudi, although the haredi representatives did vote in earlier committee hearings for preserving the current hesder format.
Haredi sources voiced concern that Netanyahu’s supposed intervention seemed to imply that he will not oppose Lapid’s demands to impose a legal obligation to perform military service, because the prime minister is more worried about the stability of his coalition than upsetting the haredi parties.
It is thought, however, that Netanyahu’s intervention may have been designed to create more time to prevent rifts in his coalition between Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid.
Yesh Atid’s representative on the committee, MK Ofer Shelah, voted last week against maintaining the shortened service for those in the hesder program.
The program in its current format is a sacred cow for the national- religious community and it would be inconceivable for Bayit Yehudi to allow significant changes to be made to it while in the government coalition.
Party chairman Naftali Bennett has said on more than one occasion that Bayit Yehudi is opposed to legally mandated service for haredi men as demanded by Yesh Atid, although he has not made the kind of threats about leaving the coalition as has Lapid.
Political sources said on Tuesday that cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit has proffered a proposal whereby the current version of the bill is preserved, but that in the two years after 2017, when the legal obligation to serve is to take effect, anyone refusing to serve will be subject to financial sanctions and not possible imprisonment.
If after those two years the haredi community is still not fulfilling government enlistment quotas, the entire law would lapse and the full force of the legal obligation to serve would be be applicable to haredi men.
Senior Yesh Atid MK and Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri said following the events in committee that the government was “obligated toward the government draft that was authorized and which establishes that the Law for the Security Services will apply to haredim and secular [people] alike.
“Without obligatory service, we will not remain in the government,” he threatened.
He accused Bayit Yehudi MKs of “turning their backs” on those who perform military service, and claimed that they were trying to empty the government bill of its content due to “narrow political interests.”
Separately, the Civilian Service Administration announced on Tuesday that there has been a sharp increase in the rate of Arab enlistment to the civilian service program so far in 2014.
Some 900 Arab volunteers have enlisted to the civilian service since January 1, according to the administration. The total for 2013 was 2,711.
Fifty-four percent of volunteers are Muslim, 10% are Christian, 19% are Beduin and 17% are Druse, according to the statistics released.
During an award and recognition of service event held in Karmiel on Tuesday, Arab activists turned up to protest against the trend of Arab enlistment to the civilian service. The activists called those serving “traitors and lepers” and said that the shoe (looked down in Arab culture) of a Palestinian youth was worth more than them.
Sar-Shalom Gerbi, director of the Civilian Service Administration, said during an address to the assembled volunteers that the increasing numbers of Arabs enlisting in the program meant that they had defeated extremism by volunteering to serve.
“We stand by your side wherever you feel under attack or discriminated against, because you chose to serve in the civil-national service,” Gerbi said.