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Why Israel is heading back to elections

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men sit as a water cannon is activated in Jerusalem during a 2018 protest over the detention of a member of their community who refuses to serve in the Israeli army. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
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JERUSALEM — Israel is heading to an election again — just seven weeks after the last one — because of disagreements within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s potential coalition over a draft bill to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military.

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often described as the struggle shaping Israel, tension between religious and secular (or less religious) Jewish Israelis is the other major factor defining the modern Jewish state.

So, what’s going on here?

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector is strong and growing: Military service is mandatory for all 18-year-old Jewish Israelis. (Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population, are exempt.) Back in 1949, Israel’s founding father David Ben Gurion first instituted a military service exception for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who feel they are commanded to only study Jewish texts and separate themselves from modern society.

Fast forward to 2019, and rather than assimilate into secular society as Ben Gurion had predicted, the ultra-Orthodox now make up 10 percent of Israel’s nearly 9 million people. With traditionally big families, the group also called the Haredim is among Israel’s fastest-growing populations. The ultra-Orthodox political parties have become kingmakers who can make or break a coalition and are becoming increasingly powerful, having won 16 seats in the 120-seat Knesset in Israel’s April elections.

These parties will side with whoever will best protect their interests, including by providing government subsidies for members who mainly study. Non-Haredi Israelis are in turn frustrated at all that the ultra-Orthodox take while not partaking in the holy pillar of Jewish Israeli society: military service.

The battle over conscription: In September 2017, the Israeli Supreme Court struck down parts of a 2015 conscription law exempting Jewish seminary students from military service, calling the measure discriminatory and unconstitutional. The court ordered the government to find a new framework providing equal treatment for all Jewish citizens. Haredim angrily took to the streets to protest. The Supreme Court later granted an extension to the deadline for passing new legislation.

In December 2018, Netanyahu, who is facing probable indictment in three corruption cases, called for early elections, ostensibly over disagreements over a draft Haredi conscription bill before the new deadline. (His opponents cast the decision to call elections as a cynical move to get reelected before being indicted.)

Netanyahu was reelected in April — and all he had left to do was build a ruling coalition with at least 61 of 120 seats to secure his spot as prime minister. Or so he thought. For the past week, Avigdor Liberman, the staunchly secular head of the Yisrael Beiteynu (Israel is Our Home) party has refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition unless the prime minister ensured that Liberman’s version of a Haredi draft bill would pass — to which the main ultra-Orthodox parties, also part of Netanyahu’s coalition, objected. It was peak Israeli-style political chicken.

The draft bill that Liberman is pushing sets yearly minimum targets for conscripting ultra-Orthodox men. It also imposes financial sanctions on the seminaries where students study if the quotas are not met. Overall, however, the bill formalizes exemptions for the majority of ultra-Orthodox students. (Liberman’s party is popular among Israelis, particularly Russian Israelis, who support right-wing policies but oppose religious oversight of daily life, such as the closure of shops on the Jewish Sabbath.)

The United Torah Judaism party, backed by other ultra-Orthodox parties, in turn has shot back and demanded exemptions for any religious man who wishes to study rather than serve in the military. They want no quotas at all.

Netanyahu’s Likud party offered Liberman a compromise: the option to pass the bill without quotas and then set them afterward — which Liberman rejected as a way to water down the legislation and render it meaningless.

The future of Israel — and its military : Israeli pundits speculated that Liberman, who used to be close with Netanyahu, could be posturing to bring down the prime minister, whom he now opposes.

Liberman denied that this was his intent — and instead emphasized that the battle over the Haredi draft bill is a symbolic one over how far Jewish law should dictate politics and everyday life in Israel.

Indeed, military service is viewed as a vital duty and source of national cohesion for Jewish Israelis. In recent years, however, the military has also struggled to keep people motivated to join and stay: With rising dropout rates, in 2015 the military lowered the mandatory service time. The integration of ultra-Orthodox Jews — who follow strict rules regarding food and interactions between men and women, among others — also poses further complications for integration.

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