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Israel High Court ruling on Haredim exemption could endanger Netanyahu rule

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a coalition crisis over drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military, an intractable battle at the heart of the state’s identity that has been sharpened by the country’s manpower needs during the war with Hamas.

In a decision that has deep ramifications for society — not to mention Netanyahu’s government — Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the suspension of state subsidies for ultra-Orthodox Jews studying in yeshivas instead of doing military service. It came just days ahead of an April 1 deadline for the government to agree on a new law to allow the community to avoid being drafted.

“There is a chance that this could be the first break in the wall for this coalition,” said Gilad Malach, an expert on the ultra-Orthodox at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. Ultra-Orthodox leaders see the ruling as a betrayal of promises from Netanyahu, he said, including assurances of financial aid and military exemptions in return for their political support.

Military exemptions date to the first days of the Israeli state, when in 1949 David Ben Gurion, the country’s founder, granted exemptions for 400 students at religious schools called yeshivas of conscription age.

Since then, however, the number qualifying for exemption has mushroomed, and the ultra-Orthodox make up 13 percent of the population. Their political parties have been key members of Netanyahu’s successive governments.

Now, Netanyahu’s political survival hinges on whether he can keep them appeased. He must do that while also balancing the demands of other members of his cabinet, who insist that all members of society should contribute equally to Israel’s war against Hamas.

The dispute underscores a central tension in modern Israel, one that has become increasingly acute as Israeli soldiers fight and die in the more than five-month-long war in Gaza.

Many ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredim in Israel, see military conscription as a threat to their existence, putting their normally cloistered young men in contact with secular life. But an increasing number of Israelis resent them for not pulling their weight; 70 percent of Israeli Jews support an end to blanket military exemptions, according to an Israel Democracy Institute survey.

The court ruling “destroys the foundation of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel,” tweeted Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Shas, an ultra-Orthodox political party in the governing coalition. “The people of Israel are engaged in a war of existence on several fronts and the judges of the High Court did everything tonight to create a fratricidal war as well.”

If ultra-Orthodox parties pull out of the coalition in protest, it would propel Israel into elections at a time when Netanyahu is deeply unpopular, his security credentials shattered by Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack.

Malach described it as another “shake” for the coalition. It comes as a potential cease-fire with Hamas also threatens Netanyahu’s support from his far-right partners. “We have more and more signals, and harder signals that the ship is shaking,” he said.

As well as deepening the wider public’s frustration with ultra-Orthodox exemptions, the war has increased Israel’s need for soldiers. There are three ways to meet the need, Malach said. The length of service for draftees could be extended — currently Israeli men are conscripted for 32 months and women serve for two years — or the duty performed by reserves could be extended, he said.

“The last option is more Haredim serve in the army,” Malach said. “We are sending our children, our brothers, our sisters to sacrifice their lives, and [the ultra-Orthodox] remain protected.”

Netanyahu had petitioned the court for a 30-day extension to come up with a new conscription bill before the current exemptions expire at the end of the month. While that was unsuccessful, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on Thursday left the way open for a transition period in which financial sanctions will be frozen. Some analysts said that would allow a decision to be kicked farther down the road.

“In trying to please both the court and the majority of the country who want a significantly increased Haredi contribution to the [Israel Defense Forces] or national service in the post-October 7 world, as well as to ‘throw a bone’ to Netanyahu, the Haredim, and the government, the whole issue will essentially be postponed for months,” Yonah Jeremy Bob wrote in a Jerusalem Post analysis.

That leeway is what’s keeping the government together for the moment, said Tzippy Yarom-Diskind, a correspondent for the Haredi newspaper Mishpacha. But she said the financing, which yeshivas can make up from donations, was less significant that the essence of the court ruling.

“This is a major earthquake,” she said. “The idea that the state of Israel comes to say, ‘We will no longer support those who learn Torah.’”

Yarom-Diskind, like other ultrareligious Jews, argues that yeshiva study is as important as serving in the military. “One can’t live here without admitting the fact that the Torah is what gave us the merit to live here, and those who preserve the Torah protect our right to live here,” she said.

Behind the scenes, Haredi parties are still hoping they can cut a deal over the issue, she said, adding: “If not, they’ll go for elections.”

While the war has added emotion to the issue of conscription exemptions, it also makes it more likely that Netanyahu’s shaky coalition will hold together, said Dan Avnon, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He argued that the threat of further escalation helps keep the coalition in place.

“We are in the middle of a war, and the war has more than one wild card,” he said. “There’s Lebanon. There’s Syria.”

“Right now I do not foresee some civil discontent where you get ultra-Orthodox and others in the street yelling it out,” Avnon said. Most of Netanyahu’s coalition partners currently have more interest in staying in the coalition than leaving it, he added.

Still, the issue will be central to elections whenever they come and is crucial to Israel’s future, Avnon said.

“Is this fundamental? Yes, it is,” he said. “Is this pulling us apart at the seams? Yes, it is. If it’s not taken care of, are we going to disintegrate as a society, and a state? I think yes.”

Morris reported from Berlin. Hazem Balousha in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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