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Dispute in Israel Over Drafting Ultra-Orthodox Jews Threatens Netanyahu

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing his most challenging political threat since the start of the Gaza war because of a disagreement among members of his coalition about whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should retain their longstanding 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 Mr. Netanyahu’s grip on power since Hamas raided Israel on Oct. 7, prompting Israel to invade Hamas’s stronghold in the Gaza Strip. Criticized by many Israelis for presiding over the October disaster, Mr. 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 most likely lead to new elections, and polling suggests that Mr. 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 on Thursday evening 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 decades-long 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.

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 percent 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,” Mr. 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 has swelled to more than one million people, roughly 13 percent of Israel’s population — up from 40,000, or 5 percent, 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 on 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 both its religious and 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 Mr. 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: It 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 it might play no part.

While still in government, Haredi leaders could press their cabinet colleagues to find workarounds to their funding shortfall, Mr. Farber said.

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

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