The real trouble with the coalition isn’t the Netanyahu probes

Here's the problem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting on February 25th, 2018. (photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting on February 25th, 2018.
(photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
With the constant news relating to alleged corruption offenses by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many observers have been looking to his coalition partners and wondering if – and in some cases, hoping – they’ll pull out and trigger an election.
So far, that hasn’t happened. In fact, the reaction has been the total opposite.
From Kulanu to Shas, Bayit Yehudi to United Torah Judaism, all of the government parties and their leaders are standing behind Netanyahu and waiting for legal authorities to have their say rather than call an election when it’s unclear if the prime minister will even be indicted. Plus, the latest polls show that the Knesset’s makeup wouldn’t be significantly different if an election were held now.
But that doesn’t mean that all is quiet on the coalition front.
While much of the political sphere was focused on the Bezeq affair and subsequent text-messaging-judge affair, a coalition crisis was bubbling under the surface.
Once again, religion and state issues and demands from ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and UTJ are putting them at loggerheads with Yisrael Beytenu and bringing the coalition to the brink of a breakdown.
This time, it’s the longstanding question of whether Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students should be exempt from IDF service.
Before Yisrael Beytenu was in the coalition, this government pushed through a law that essentially allowed the exemptions to continue, and canceled the previous government’s law to gradually require more Haredim to enlist.
But in September, the High Court told the government to come up with a less discriminatory solution within a year. Because of the Knesset’s schedule, it would be prudent for that solution to be submitted to the legislature around now.
UTJ and Shas have put forward a bill that they think will solve their problem: A Basic Law that will enshrine Torah study as a supreme value in Israel, such that the law exempting yeshiva students from serving in the IDF could remain as is.
The Haredi parties have demanded that their bill go to a preliminary vote on Wednesday, or they will rebel in the votes on the 2019 state budget expected to take place in early March. Plus, senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni is the head of the Knesset Finance Committee, a prime position to sabotage the budget.
In recent months, the Haredi parties flexed their muscles over public violations of Shabbat. Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman resigned from the Health Ministry in protest over train repairs done on Saturdays. Netanyahu came up with a compromise that brought Litzman back to the ministry, but also included a highly controversial bill that further limited commerce on Shabbat.
These moves already pushed Yisrael Beytenu to the limit of what its largely secular, Russian-speaking constituents will tolerate. And Yisrael Beytenu voted against the Shabbat-shops law, leaving the coalition flailing and just barely eking out a majority.
And the issue of IDF enlistment falls under the jurisdiction of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Yisrael Beytenu’s leader.
Liberman has put his foot down, saying the problem will only be solved through legislation drafted by a professional committee in his ministry, and that national security must be the top priority. What he’s not saying is that his voters won’t tolerate a capitulation to the Haredim.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, chairman of Kulanu, has also commented that the Haredi conscription bill should be a professional and not a political one.
So Yisrael Beytenu told coalition leadership on Monday that it will, in effect, leave the coalition if the bill goes to a vote on Wednesday. And the following day, Gafni said UTJ will do the same if the bill doesn’t go to a vote.
At the moment, it looks like coalition chairman David Amsalem (Likud) is leaning toward Yisrael Beytenu because voting against the budget is a blatant violation of the coalition agreement. But in the Knesset, things can change at any moment.
Shas and UTJ were in Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 government, and the 2013 election was held under the shadow of the coalition’s failure to reach an agreement on what a Haredi enlistment bill should look like.
The real question here is whether Netanyahu wants an election. If he does, he can use this quarrel as an excuse.
And if he doesn’t, he’ll have to take time from his busy schedule, between being questioned by police and jetting to the US to meet with President Donald Trump, to find a way to bridge the differences within the coalition.