The crisis over ultra-Orthodox military service exemption legislation appears to stem largely from a concern that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually wants an election right now, despite – or perhaps because of – the police investigations and allegations against him.
According to haredi sources, Ya’acov Litzman is convinced that Netanyahu is set on an election, and therefore, the deputy health minister has embarked on an uncompromising path in demanding that the military service exemption bill that United Torah Judaism has advanced be fully passed into law before the 2019 budget is approved.
Litzman has said that he believes Netanyahu is intent on going to an election, and for evidence pointed out that the prime minister has shown little interest in solving this crisis, and that neither he nor his representatives have made alternative proposals.
Comments attributed to Netanyahu on Tuesday that he wants to find a long-term solution to the haredi military service conundrum have also set off warning lights among the haredim, since this seems contrary to the prime minister’s general modus operandi of finding stop-gap measures for such problems.
And Netanyahu did not express much interest in finding a viable, comprehensive, long-term solution at the beginning of the current government to the issue of haredi military service, and allowed a rushed, superficial law to be passed, which was inevitably struck down by the High Court last year.
All this being the case, Litzman appears to think that he is well served within the haredi world, and specifically the Gur hassidic community to which he belongs, by flexing his muscles and demonstrating his deep commitment to protecting yeshiva students, “the apple of the eye” of the haredi world.
Even if Litzman is not 100% certain that the prime minister is determined to go to the polls, he and the rest of the haredi political parties do not believe it will be possible to pass the military service exemption law once the 2019 budget has been approved.
The haredi parties, probably rightly, believe that this is the only real leverage they will have to ensure that their unpopular and politically toxic exemption bill can be passed.
Litzman is, therefore, figuring that he has little to lose. Either Netanyahu wants an election, and so there is no chance of getting the law passed, or he does not want an election, so there is everything to gain by making the most maximal demands possible before the budget is passed.
Litzman’s haredi partners are, however, somewhat more cautious in their approach.
Both MK Moshe Gafni and Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri are wary of sparking an election over the combustible issue of haredi military service and the renewed attempts to reinstate the blanket exemptions that the High Court struck down.
Given the recent strength of MK Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid in the polls, the party that has more than any other raised the banner of obligatory haredi military service, both Gafni and Deri are reluctant to make the do-or-die demands that Litzman has.
Deri in particular, who is being investigated for corruption charges, is especially wary of an election because Shas has been faring poorly in the polls, with some even putting the party in danger of not passing the electoral threshold.
According to reports in the haredi media, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the two rabbinical leaders of the non-hassidic haredi community which Gafni represents, has told Gafni to deal “responsibly” with the situation.
Gafni on Wednesday issued criticism seemingly aimed at Litzman, saying that the issue was “totally resolvable” and that it appeared “someone” does not want a resolution.
In particular, Gafni noted that a solution “will take a bit of time,” an apparent rebuke to Litzman, who is insistent that the law be approved immediately.
Deri, who is also close to Kanievsky, backed Gafni’s stance, using similar language by saying that “the enlistment law is solvable” and adding that the haredi community “will not forgive” anyone who breaks apart the current government, which has been so favorable to the haredi parties and community.
On Wednesday evening, Gafni and former Shas MK Ariel Attias were formulating a bill that would be more palatable than the legislation advanced until now, with the hope of having it pass merely a preliminary reading before the budget is approved.
The success of this compromise is most certainly not assured since it relies on Litzman backing down, and Yisrael Beytenu, which fiercely opposed the original bill proposed by UTJ, making concessions as well.
Ultimately, if, as Litzman believes, the prime minister believes that his best path for remaining in power lies in appealing to the electorate for a new mandate before a possible indictment, then no compromise is going to work at this stage.