Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened with heads of the Haredi parties Wednesday evening for an emergency discussion on the heels of the coalition crisis surrounding the decision to not bring the IDF draft bill to a vote—which was followed by Haredi threats to refrain from voting in favor of the state's 2019 budget.
However, after a ninety minute discussion attended by Netanyahu, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, MK Moshe Gafni and Ministers Ze'ev Elkin and Yariv Levin, no agreement was reached.
A message put out on behalf of the prime minister said that in further discussions—to be attended again by Elkin and Levin as well as by a representative of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit—attempts will be made to broker an agreement on the draft bill's text. The first such discussion will be held Thursday.
A simultaneous message from the Haredi parties said "no progress had been made in talks with the prime minister over the draft bill's wording. The parties will continue discussing the matter."
Signals from the Likud ranks also seemed equally bleak. According to one Likud official, the situation after the meeting “is not hopeless, but is extremely bad.”
The official said that problems remained in the wording of the amendment to the bill that the Haredim are seeking and that any agreement is not on the horizon.
The Knesset plenum adjourned earlier on Wednesday because of the Jewish festival of Purim, and the short schedule did not leave time to hold the vote on the legislation, which would solicit state recognition of Torah studies to being equal to military service.
In response, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) leader Yaakov Litzman announced his party won't vote for the new state budget. "The (amendment to the) Draft Law is an integral part of the coalition agreement and we expect all coalition parties to support it if they want the coalition to last," said Litzman, the deputy health minister.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman castigated UTJ's attempt to force the approval of the legislation, calling their proposed legislation a "draft dodging bill." He further slammed their apparent holding of the coalition to ransom by using the state budget as leverage as "no less than extortion using threats."
Lieberman stressed that his party, Yisrael Beytenu, will "not surrender" to UTJ's pressure and will not allow the bill to pass.
Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid also weighed in on the controversial issue Wednesday evening, saying, "The Haredim continue their threats regarding the draft dodging law, because they now know they could make Netanyahu cave on anything.
"The defense minister did well to decisively come out against the legislation. Now is the true test of (Education Minister) Bennett and (Finance Minister) Kahlon to stop the extortion. You cannot trample over everything that is holy to the secular, religious and traditional public in the State of Israel in the name of political survival."
UTJ's Council of Torah Sages first exhorted the party a few days ago to make their support dependent on the amendment to the draft law, but UTJ stressed at the time that this was not an explicit demand that could endanger the stability of the coalition.
However, matters changed on Wednesday, with the party stating that its backing of the state budget entirely hinged on the fate of the draft law.
The UTJ is seeking to rapidly ram the bill through the Knesset in order to obtain, for the first time, official state recognition of Torah studies, in addition to stipulating that Torah studies be mandatory. In doing so, the bill would elevate the status of students of Torah to being equal to that of IDF conscripts.
The bill is intended to circumvent a decision by the High Court of Justice, which stipulated that the current parameters of the law had to be changed, ordering the Knesset to pass a more equal law.
The new bill proposal, therefore, is an attempt by the UTJ party to bypass the decision and leave the current situation unaltered.
Aware of the sensitivity of the matter, which has been an ongoing polarizing issue in Israeli society, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu warned UTJ that the potential fallout outweighed the positive results caused by catalyzing the legislative procedure.
In addition, the Likud party is concerned that the bill would play into the hands of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which may launch a rigorous campaign against it. This, the party fears, would only engender further embitterment among the secular members of the public who demand an equal sharing of the burden in military service.
In midst of crisis, Lieberman pokes fun at Haredi party chiefs
Defense Minister Lieberman made judicious use of Purim, celebrated nationwide Thursday, to record a holiday greeting needling heads of the Ashkenazi Haredi parties Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman.
In the video, Lieberman dressed up as a soldier from the Kfir Brigade, complete with camouflage-colored beret and large conspicuous Haredi kippah and holding a book resembling a siddur—a Jewish prayer book.
"When Adar comes, conscription is increased," Lieberman quipped, referencing a well-known Purim saying. "Gafni to Sayeret Matkal, Litzman to Shayetet 13. Happy Purim."
Head of the Sephardic Shas party Aryeh Deri, previously considered close to Lieberman, was absent from the satirical video.
The defense minister's choice of beret was not coincidental, as the Kfir Brigade includes the Haredi Netzah Yehuda Battalion.
Yoav Zitun contributed to this report.