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Conscription for Ultra-Orthodox Jews Presents New Threat to Netanyahu

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing his most challenging political threat since the start of the Israel-Hamas war because of a disagreement among members of his coalition about whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should retain their long-standing exemption from military service.

An unwieldy right-wing alliance of secular and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, the coalition’s members are divided about whether the state should continue to allow young ultra-Orthodox men to study at religious seminaries instead of serving in the military as most other Jewish Israelis do. If the government abolishes the exemption, it risks a walkout from the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers; if it lets the exemption stand, the secular members could withdraw. Either way, the coalition could collapse.

The situation poses the gravest challenge to Netanyahu’s grip on power since Hamas raided Israel on Oct. 7, prompting Israel to invade Hamas’ stronghold in the Gaza Strip. Criticized by many Israelis for presiding over the October disaster, Netanyahu is trailing in the polls and faces growing calls to resign. But until now, there were few obvious ways in which his coalition might collapse.

The end of the coalition would probably lead to new elections, and polling suggests that Netanyahu would not win.

A new Israeli government led by centrists is unlikely to take a markedly different approach to the war in Gaza, but it may be more open to allowing the Palestinian leadership in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to play a bigger role in Gaza after the war. That arrangement could create a more conducive environment for Israel to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, which had edged closer to sealing diplomatic ties with Israel before the war broke out.

The ultra-Orthodox have been exempt from military service since the founding of Israel in 1948, but as the numbers of the ultra-Orthodox have grown — and especially in the months since the war began — so have resentment and anger over these privileges.

The issue came to the fore Thursday night when the government announced that the coalition had not agreed on an extension to the exemption by April 1, when the current exemption elapses. That news prompted the Supreme Court to instruct the government, as soon as the deadline passes, to suspend special educational subsidies that support seminary students if those students have failed to answer their military call-ups.

The court’s decision spurred outrage among ultra-Orthodox leaders who fear for the financial future of their education system, which depends largely on state subsidies, and are concerned that the funding freeze is the first step toward mandatory military service for their community.

For now, some ultra-Orthodox leaders have said that their parties will remain in the coalition while they wait to see what happens.

The standoff reflects how a decadeslong battle over the character and future of the Jewish state has become graver since Oct. 7. Secular Israelis have long clashed with the ultra-Orthodox minority, known in Hebrew as Haredim, about how religious the state should be and how much autonomy the Haredim should have.

Now, a growing number of soldiers, including those from religious backgrounds, are returning from the front lines in Gaza and questioning why they should be risking their lives for a minority that receives vast educational subsidies, contributes less to the economy than other parts of society and mostly does not serve in the military.

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by Anonymousreply 9March 31, 2024 8:19 PM

Significant sections of the Haredi public have displayed a greater sense of shared destiny with mainstream Israelis since the attack, with some expressing greater support for the army and a small minority showing more interest in joining it. Roughly 1,000 Haredi men currently serve voluntarily in the military — less than 1% of all soldiers — but more than 2,000 Haredim sought to join the military in the first 10 weeks of the war, according to military statistics.

But the Haredi leadership remains deeply opposed to mandatory military service, fearing that it might disrupt their conservative way of life, which is centered around intensive Torah study in seminaries, or yeshivas.

“If a yeshiva student has to leave the yeshiva to be drafted, for whatever the reason, then we will not stay in the government,” said Moshe Roth, a Haredi lawmaker.

“This is a make it or break it,” he said.

“The only way to protect the Torah and to keep it alive, as it has been for the last 3,500 years, is by having yeshivas,” Roth added.

The dispute is rooted in decisions made in the years surrounding Israel’s founding, when the country’s secular leadership promised autonomy and privileges to the ultra-Orthodox minority in exchange for their support for a largely secular national project. As well as exemption from the draft, the Haredim are allowed to run their own autonomous education system.

When their numbers of the Haredim were relatively small, their privileges mattered less to the Israeli mainstream. But as their population swelled to more than 1 million people, roughly 13% of Israel’s population — up from 40,000, or 5%, in 1948 — even many observant Jews who serve in the military have expressed resentment.

The exemption has prompted numerous legal challenges, the most significant of which was upheld by a Supreme Court decision in 2017. Its implementation has been postponed repeatedly to allow successive governments to find a compromise, and the latest deferment will elapse Monday.

In practice, few expect military police officers to start searching Haredi neighborhoods to arrest seminary students who should be serving in the army. The army is not logistically prepared to absorb large numbers of highly conservative men who, for religious reasons, will refuse to serve in units alongside women.

The Supreme Court has also given the government another month to reach a middle ground acceptable to its religious and its secular members. Officials and lawmakers say a compromise is under discussion, in which a few thousand seminary dropouts would be required to serve, but not those still studying.

“There is an understanding that something should be done, especially after Oct. 7,” said Danny Danon, a secular lawmaker in the governing coalition who supports ending the exemption. “We respect religion, and tradition, but at the same time, we realize that we have to change the current situation,” he added.

The threat of a financial shortfall for Haredi schools has injected a greater sense of urgency into the negotiations.

The court order did not say how many students would be affected by the freeze, and Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on whether the government would enforce the order.

But court documents suggested that up to roughly 60,000 student subsidies could be at risk — a sizable part of the seminary system’s budget.

Dozens of yeshivas “won’t last if they don’t have money from the government,” said Yanki Farber, a prominent Haredi commentator.

Still, the Haredi leadership could yet decide to stay in the coalition: They can wield more influence inside a right-wing coalition than by triggering elections that could be won by a more centrist and secular alliance in which they might play no part.

While still in government, the Haredi leadership could press their Cabinet colleagues to find workarounds to their funding shortfall, Farber said.

“It’s a very big disaster for the Haredim,” Farber said. But, he added, “At the moment they have much more to lose by leaving than staying.”

by Anonymousreply 1March 31, 2024 5:06 AM

As soon as the Gaza invasion is completed, Netanyahu is gone so he won't have to deal with this problem for very long. He'll never be seen in Israeli politics again because he failed to protect his people - on top of all the other issues he brings with him.

by Anonymousreply 2March 31, 2024 5:11 AM

These Ultra Orthodox are so deplorable, they want all the security other Israelis provide for them, but don't want to put none of the work in themselves. Horrible, unkempt-looking people.

by Anonymousreply 3March 31, 2024 5:19 AM

Fuck Netanyahu with an uncut dildo.

by Anonymousreply 4March 31, 2024 5:29 AM

Netanyahu = Scum

by Anonymousreply 5March 31, 2024 6:42 AM

Oh I hope those rank, lazy, racist orthodoxes get drafted. It will be a joy to see how fast Bibi gets ousted. Where will Jared be then? I guess he’ll share the two billion with him.

by Anonymousreply 6March 31, 2024 7:00 AM

So the argument is that there are TWO classes of the chosen people.

by Anonymousreply 7March 31, 2024 7:02 AM

Trouble in "paradise?"

Uh oh.

by Anonymousreply 8March 31, 2024 3:55 PM

[quote] Israelis stage largest anti-government protest since the war in Gaza began

JERUSALEM (AP) — Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered outside the parliament building in Jerusalem on Sunday in the largest anti-government demonstration since the country went to war in October. They urged the government to reach a cease-fire deal to free dozens of hostages held by the Hamas militant group in Gaza and to hold early elections.

Israeli society was broadly united immediately after Oct. 7, when Hamas killed some 1,200 people during a cross-border attack and took 250 others hostage. Nearly six months of conflict have renewed divisions over the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though the country remains largely in favor of the war.

Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas and bring all the hostages home, yet those goals have been elusive. While Hamas has suffered heavy losses, it remains intact.

Roughly half the hostages in Gaza were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November. But attempts by international mediators to bring home the remaining hostages have failed. Talks resumed on Sunday with little expectation of a breakthrough.

“We believe that no hostages will come back with this government because they’re busy putting sticks in the wheels of negotiations for the hostages,” said Boaz Atzili, whose cousin, Aviv Atlizi and his wife, Liat, were kidnapped on Oct. 7. Lait was released but Aviv was killed, and his body is in Gaza. “Netanyahu is only working in his private interests.”

Protesters blame Netanyahu for the failures of Oct. 7 and say the deep political divisions over his attempted judicial overhaul last year weakened Israel ahead of the attack. Some accuse him of damaging relations with the United States, Israel’s most important ally.

Netanyahu is also facing a litany of corruption charges which are slowly making their way through the courts, and critics say his decisions appear to be focused on political survival over the national interest.

Many families of hostages had refrained from publicly denouncing Netanyahu to avoid antagonizing the leadership and making the hostages' plight a political issue. But some now want to change course.

The crowd on Sunday stretched for blocks around the Knesset, or parliament building, and organizers vowed to continue the demonstration for several days. They urged the government to hold new elections nearly two years ahead of schedule. Thousands also demonstrated in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu, in a nationally televised speech before undergoing hernia surgery later Sunday, said he understood families' pain. But he said calling new elections — in what he described as a moment before victory — would paralyze Israel for six to eight months and stall the hostage talks.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition appears to remain firmly intact, and even if he were ousted, top rival Benny Gantz is a war cabinet member and likely would continue many of his policies.

In his Sunday address, Netanyahu also repeated his vow for a military ground offensive in Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than half of territory's population of 2.3 million now shelters after fleeing fighting elsewhere. “There is no victory without going into Rafah," he said, adding that U.S. pressure would not deter him. Israel's military says Hamas battalions remain there.

In another reminder of Israel's divisions, a group of reservists and retired officers demonstrated in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Ultra-Orthodox men for generations have received exemptions from military service, which is compulsory for most Jewish men and women. Resentment over that has deepened during the war. Netanyahu’s government has been ordered to present a new plan for a more equitable draft law by Monday.

Netanyahu, who relies heavily on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, last week asked for an extension.

The Bank of Israel said in its annual report on Sunday that there could be economic damage if large numbers of ultra-Orthodox men continue not to serve in Israel’s military.

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by Anonymousreply 9March 31, 2024 8:19 PM
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