In a sign that the coalition crisis may have been averted, the United Torah Judaism Council of Torah Sages ruled late Sunday that the party's MKs can vote for the 2019 state budget, after an agreement was reached between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UTJ leader Ya'acov Litzman.
Netanyahu held late-night meetings with his coalition partners Litzman and Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon on Sunday night in an effort to prevent the collapse of his government and the initiation of June 26 elections.
Such talks were expected to continue Monday, ahead of a key vote on a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription bill in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked delayed from Sunday to give Netanyahu more time to resolve the crisis.
A deal worked out by Netanyahu and Litzman late on Sunday would have a conscription bill pass in Shaked’s committee on Monday and a preliminary reading in the Knesset, then continue to be legislated after the Knesset’s spring recess. UTJ, which refused to vote for the budget at the height of the dispute, are now expected to vote in favor and enable its passage before the recess.
Talks between Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman are expected to be key to resolving the dispute.
If no agreement is finalized, the Knesset is likely to vote to disperse itself Wednesday and initiate elections. The June 26 date is as early as possible, which Netanyahu would prefer, as would Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid.
But other Zionist Union MKs said they opposed the date, parties in Netanyahu’s coalition prefer elections in the fall and Joint List MK Ahmed Tibi said the election cannot be held too close to Ramadan, which will be from mid-May to mid-June.
Netanyahu’s associates said he was more involved than ever in fixing the problems that led to the dispute, and sources in United Torah Judaism said they believed the crisis is solvable if a new version of the conscription bill is acceptable to its rabbis.
The chances of Israel going to early elections had appeared to increase dramatically hours earlier Sunday when the Council of Torah Sages of UTJ’s Agudat Yisrael faction insisted that a law to guarantee military-service exemptions for yeshiva students be passed before the 2019 budget is approved.
MKs from Agudat Yisrael presented the details of the bill to the party’s Council of Torah Sages on Sunday afternoon. The council secretary issued a statement that, while not addressing the content of the draft law, said the council’s demands from two weeks ago that the bill pass before the budget remained in place.
The decision of Agudat Yisrael, which makes up half of the UTJ faction, constituted a rejection of a compromise bill proposed by Bayit Yehudi leaders Naftali Bennett and Shaked that aimed to ward off the collapse of the government that would see the country go to the ballot boxes more than a year before the scheduled date.
Kahlon has rejected Agudat Yisrael’s demands to pass the enlistment law before the budget, saying the budget must pass this week or he will resign as finance minister and topple the government.
At the same time, Litzman, who heads Agudat Yisrael, has said he will not vote for the budget until the enlistment-exemption bill is approved.
Shaked, UTJ MK Meir Porush and former Shas MK Ariel Atias have been working on a new bill that could pass muster in the High Court of Justice while preserving the ability of haredi yeshiva students to obtain military-service exemptions.
The bill that has been drawn up would set binding annual targets for haredi enlistment, which would be reviewed every one or two years. Should the targets not be met, the law would be voided and young haredi men would theoretically be obliged to enlist to the IDF, although the Knesset would have a year to pass a new exemptions law.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that the grand rabbis of Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages oppose the clause in which the law lapses if the targets are not met, because they are concerned it could lead to a mass drafting of yeshiva students.
MKs from Agudat Yisrael were working on a new version of the bill to overcome the rabbis’ objections on Sunday night, and they intended to bring it back to the Council of Torah Sages once it was reworked.
NETANYAHU SET three conditions to keep the coalition intact before meeting with party leaders on Sunday.
The first condition is that there will be a conscription bill agreed upon by Shas and UTJ, as well as by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit.
Second, Kulanu and all of its MKs would have to agree to support it in all three Knesset votes.
The final condition is aimed at Liberman. Yisrael Beytenu and all other parties will have to commit to continuing the coalition partnership “over time.”
Netanyahu faced a challenge Sunday morning from Bayit Yehudi chairman Bennett, who warned him that he and the people of Israel would not accept him initiating an election due to his criminal investigations.
In a series of tweets and radio interviews, Bennett became increasingly critical and even suggested that he could run against him for prime minister.
“Mr. Prime Minister Netanyahu: As long as you act for the good of the State of Israel, we will remain behind you,” Bennett wrote on Twitter. “If you topple a right-wing government and cause unnecessary elections for personal purposes, you will lose us.”
In an interview with Army Radio, Bennett said he always has said he would run for prime minister in the post-Netanyahu era, but if it became apparent that “he is playing with the state and advancing elections for his personal needs,” he will reconsider that decision. He told Israel Radio the dispute was “a fake crisis” and going to elections was “not smart.”
The Likud responded that “while Prime Minister Netanyahu is busy solving the crisis and stabilizing his right-wing government, Bennett is busy with his personal campaign.” Netanyahu’s party said if Bennett was really concerned about maintaining a right-wing government, he would commit to remaining in it until its term ends in November 2019.
“The last thing Bennett cares about is stabilizing a nationalist government under Netanyahu,” the Likud said. “As his statements reveal, Bennett is trying to topple the prime minister and worrying about his own job.”
In a meeting with Likud ministers, Netanyahu said he was working to ensure his government would complete its term. He said all coalition partners had to do their part to ensure that could happen.
Netanyahu ruled out returning to a coalition of 61 MKs without Liberman’s party. He said Likud MKs would issue too many demands if they each held the balance of power.
Liberman said he cannot back the current bill of UTJ and Shas on haredi conscription that is the focus of the current crisis. He criticized Bennett without mentioning him by name, saying that “those who want to be defense minister and also prime minister should be more modest.”
“We will not work with a gun to our heads,” Liberman said. “There is a limit to the amount of mudslinging from coalition partners that we can tolerate.”Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.