Dep. Education Minister Meir Porush (r) addresses Knesset committee hearing
Dep. Education Minister Meir Porush (r) addresses Knesset committee hearing Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Israel moved a step closer towards snap elections Sunday, as the religious leaders of the United Torah Judaism party rejected a proposed compromise deal which would have enabled the Likud-led coalition government to pass the 2019 budget before full passage of an amendment to the nation’s draft law that has divided coalition members.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s 66-member coalition government has struggled to accommodate the two haredi factions, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which hold a combined 13 seats, while not alienating Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s five-member Yisrael Beytenu party.

Haredi lawmakers have demanded that the government pass legislation enshrining already existing draft deferments for full-time yeshiva students with an amendment to Israel’s Basic Laws, thus protecting the deferments from the Supreme Court, which has repeatedly struck down the deferments.

Last month, MKs from the UTJ party threatened to block passage of the 2019 budget, potentially toppling the government, if their demands were not met.

Liberman, however, has refused to support the proposed bill, calling haredi demands “extortion” by “extremist elements” he said had ‘taken Israel captive’.

The simmering dispute intensified last week while Prime Minister Netanyahu was abroad, and despite efforts by senior Likud officials to broker a deal to end the coalition crisis.

The most recent compromise arrangement proposed by Likud leaders would include passage of the haredi-backed draft bill in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Monday, essentially guaranteeing full government support for the bill. The draft bill would then be brought up in the full Knesset for an initial vote on Wednesday, while the 2019 budget bill would be passed, guaranteeing the coalition’s continued operation.

On Sunday, however, the Council of Torah Sages of the Agudat Yisrael faction of the UTJ party rejected the offer, instructing its MKs to vote against the budget until the draft bill has been passed into law.

Despite their rejection of the compromise, however, rabbis on the council urged haredi lawmakers to continue their efforts to hammer out a compromise deal which would prevent snap elections.

Since the establishment of the state in 1948, the IDF has offered draft deferments to Torah scholars.

While only several hundred deferments were issued in 1948-1949, during the War of Independence, the number ballooned over the next three decades as the haredi community grew and the restrictions on eligibility for the deferments were loosened.

By the late 1970s, deferments were offered to all full-time yeshiva students, renewable on a yearly basis. Today, there are some 60,000 registered yeshiva students in Israel eligible for draft deferments.

In the 1990s, successive governments sought to encourage haredi enlistment in either the army or in alternative civilian service. The Tal Committee, appointed in 1999, compiled a list of recommendations ultimately passed into law in 2002, protecting draft exemptions for yeshiva students while providing those looking to join the workforce with alternatives to the full 36-month draft, including an abridged 16-month army service or participation in a year-long civilian national service program.

The Tal Law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012, forcing the Knesset to pass a new Draft Law clarifying the status of yeshiva students.

In 2014, following the establishment of a Likud-led coalition government with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, the Knesset passed a new draft law imposing quotas strictly limiting the number of deferments issued to yeshiva students, and placing sanctions on those who refuse to enlist.

A year later, however, with the fall of the 33rd government and the election of a new Knesset, haredi lawmakers secured the passage of a new draft law amending the 2014 legislation. The new law removed the deferment quotas and effectively removed sanctions on those who fail to enlist.

In 2017, however, the Supreme Court again intervened, striking down the 2015 amendment and turning the matter back to the Knesset for further legislation.

Haredi lawmakers have sought to secure government support for a bill which would, among other things, amend Israel’s Basic Laws to enshrine Torah study as a protected “national value”, thereby circumventing the Supreme Court ruling and guaranteeing draft deferments for yeshiva students remain in place.