Avigdor Liberman
Avigdor LibermanMiriam Alster/Flash 90

Defense Minister Avgidor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party threatened to bolt the coalition government Monday, warning that passage of a haredi-backed draft law would force Yisrael Beytenu to join the opposition.

The warning comes after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reached an accord with haredi lawmakers Sunday night, achieving a compromise agreement on a draft law submitted by Shas MK Yoav Ben Tzur, and ending a month-long standoff with the United Torah Judaism party.

Last month, UTJ MKs threatened to block passage of the 2019 budget, due by the end of the month, unless the government first passed legislation to protect draft deferments for full-time yeshiva students.

Failure to pass the budget by the end of the month would topple the government and force snap elections.

Yisrael Beytenu, however, has rejected the new draft law, arguing that legislation regarding conscription must be drawn up in coordination with the security establishment. Yisrael Beytenu has long supported reforming the draft, and restricting deferments for yeshiva students.

Under the agreement reached Sunday night, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will approve the haredi-backed draft law during a special meeting on Monday, guaranteeing government support for the bill. Later on Monday, the 2019 budget bill will be brought before the full Knesset and passed with the support of haredi coalition partners.

On Wednesday, the draft law will be brought before the full Knesset for a first reading. The law will be brought up in the Knesset plenum for the two remaining votes in the summer.

But on Monday, Yisrael Beytenu warned that passage of the draft law would force them to leave the coalition. Should Yisrael Beytenu drop out of the government, Netanyahu would be left with a bare majority of 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

“If the law is passed in its current form – we’re out,” Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer told Channel 10 on Monday.

Forer did, however, indicate his party was not dropping out of the government immediately, but would wait until final passage of the bill this summer.

“We won’t let our hands be tied when it comes to security matters. We’ll leave the coalition if the bill is passed in the second and third readings.”

Another Yisrael Beytenu MK, Robert Ilatov, told Channel 12 Monday morning that his faction would vote against the draft law in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Monday. If the bill is approved, as expected, he continued, the party would appeal the decision.

“I think that a bill like this needs to come from professionals, and that means the Defense Ministry. We can’t have a situation where every Knesset member can put a bombshell [ultimatum] like this on the table.”

Draft deferments and exemptions have long been a contentious issue in Israeli politics, with several attempts at overhauling the draft system and multiple Supreme Court rulings striking down draft laws.

Since the establishment of the state in 1948, the IDF has offered exemptions to certain groups, including most Israeli Arabs, Orthodox women, and Druze women. The army has also offered draft deferments to students, including 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.