United Torah Judaism (UTJ) remains the final major hurdle for Likud chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu to finalize the makeup of Israel's 37th government, as he enters the final week of the 28 days allotted to him for this purpose.
Over the past two weeks, Netanyahu signed agreements with Otzma Yehudit chairman MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, Religious Zionism Party chairman MK Bezalel Smotrich and Noam chairman MK Avi Maoz. However, these agreements are all appendixes that relate only to the jobs each party will receive in the government. All of them still need to sign final agreements that include policy guidelines and other details.
Shas and UTJ have yet to sign any agreements. However, while Shas is reportedly close to an agreement, UTJ is not, as there are a number of central issues that have not been worked out.
Netanyahu is likely to request an additional two weeks to finalize the agreements and push through necessary legislation required by the agreements, Maariv reported on Friday.
The most contentious issue between the Likud and UTJ is a demand by the latters' Hasidic faction, Agudat Yisrael, regarding haredi citizens' service in the IDF. In mid-November, three major Hasidic rabbis demanded to insert a new demand into the negotiations – to reenact the "Tal Law" from 2002, which enabled haredim who wished to study Torah full-time to receive a full exemption from service in the IDF while encouraging those who did not want to study to complete a shortened 16-month service or alternatively a year of non-military national service.
The Tal law was initially legislated for five years and extended once for another five years, but in 2012 an attempt for another exemption was struck down by the High Court, which deemed it unconstitutional on the grounds that it disproportionately infringed on the rights of those who did serve.
A reenactment of the law will likely be struck down once again by the High Court due to this precedent. However, another demand of UTJ, the Override Clause, would enable the Knesset to override such a ruling.
Agudat Yisrael's central newspaper, "Hamevaser", argued on its front page on Friday that the party's demand to reenact the Tal Law was no different than other parties' demands for certain legislation as part of their agreements with the Likud. The Likud itself is demanding that its partners support legislation to cancel a law passed by the previous Knesset that allows a minimum of four legislators to break away from a party in order to form an independent party, Shas is demanding legislation to enable chairman Aryeh Deri to serve as a minister despite a suspended jail sentence from January, and Otmza Yehudit demanded legislation that will give Ben-Gvir greater power over the Israel Police.
There is therefore no reason why Agudat Yisrael should not be able to demand its own legislation, the party argued.
Agudat Yisrael makes up four out of UTJ's seven Knesset members. Their support is, therefore, necessary for Netanyahu to form a government, as without them he only has 60 votes.
Funding for private haredi school systems
Another central issue that has yet to be resolved between UTJ and the Likud is the issue of funding for private haredi school systems. Netanyahu promised UTJ prior to the election to increase these systems' funding, but the details have yet to be worked out.
UTJ has not yet signed on the incoming coalition's request to convene the Knesset plenum in order to replace the Knesset speaker, a step necessary to control the pace of legislation and pass the aforementioned laws.
The most recent agreement between Netanyahu and Smotrich came on Thursday evening after nearly three weeks of negotiations, marking the most significant step since the election on November 1 in forming a government.
According to the agreement, Smotrich will become Finance Minister as part of a rotation. RZP will also receive the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, and a new ministry called the "National Tasks Ministry," which will receive the authorities currently another the Settlements Ministry, as well as responsibility for the pre-army military programs, national service and others.
One of these will also serve as a minister in the Defense Ministry responsible for the settlements in the West Bank, which will act "in accordance and agreement with the Prime Minister."
RZP will also receive a deputy ministry position, as well as the Knesset Law Committee, the Reforms Committee and the Religious Affairs Committee.
UTJ clarified in a statement later on Thursday that a number of religious affairs would be decided by the Knesset Interior Committee, which it will control. These include issues related to municipal religious councils, burial and others.