Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked have opened an independent mediating channel in the past 24 hours in an effort to bring the latest coalition crisis to an end.
The United Torah Judaism party (UTJ) threatened last week not to support the state’s 2019 budget unless an IDF conscription bill, which would solicit state recognition of Torah studies to being equal to military service, is brought for a vote and passed in the Knesset first.
Repeated attempts to resolve the issue have so far been unsuccessful. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently on a state visit to the United States, spoke to Tourism Ministry Yariv Levin, who has been put in charge of reaching a compromise that would allow the passing of a amendment to the draft law, and to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who stated recently that his Yisrael Beytenu party would not allow the bill to pass.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party met Sunday with Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism). During the meeting, Litzman asked Kahlon to postpone the approval of the 2019 budget and allow the approval of the draft law beforehand. Litzman even offered to provide a commitment in writing to support the budget without any further demand, if the draft law is approved.
The government has two weeks to try to solve the coalition crisis. Despite declarations by coalition parties that they are uninterested in elections right now, if a solution is not found and the budget cannot be passed, the Knesset is headed towards dispersal and the country to elections in June.
Bennett and Shaked have launched talks with all coalition party leaders in an effort to reach a compromise and avoid having to go to elections.
On Monday evening, after having many conversations with Shas leader Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Defense Minister Lieberman, Finance Minister Kahlon and Deputy Health Minister Litzman, Bennett sent an update to his Bayit Yehudi party members, telling them "the issue with the draft (law) is definitely solvable. It's not one of the complicated crises either."
According to Bennett, "all we need is to drop the issue of 'Basic Law'—because this is something Kahlon and Lieberman won't allow—and simply move onto an amended draft law, which incorporates the notes from the High Court and will be approved in the Ministerial Committee and in preliminary reading. As soon as it passes a preliminary reading, it proves there are enough fingers in the Knesset (to vote in favor), and that should satisfy everyone."
He criticized Netanyahu's inaction in the matter, saying, "The way I see it, no one, not even Netanyahu, has really taken the bull by the horns and tried to reach a compromise. That is why we came into the picture."
"On Saturday night, I turned to the prime minister's people, but they didn't really help. In my opinion, Netanyahu simply hasn't decided what direction he wants to go in yet, but if he wanted to, he could resolve it in a few minutes when he returns to Israel," the education minister added.
"What's important is for everyone to talk about the importance of the government's stability, so the country is not dragged to elections, and the right-wing government is not brought down," he went on to say. "We have a good national government. I really do encourage you: Give interviews, say there's no reason to go to elections and bring down the right-wing government."
Shaked, speaking at the AIPAC conference in Washington on Sunday, called the crisis “a fake crisis."
"It would be irresponsible for it to lead to early elections and the fall of a right wing government. We must work with our coalition partners for an agreeable compromise that everybody could live with. The current government is good and is doing important things in security, economics, law and education. There is no reason to give the left the pleasure of toppling a right-wing government. No one can promise that the left will not come to power," she said.
If the decision to head to elections is taken, the timing is very tight. The vote on dispersing the Knesset might even take place next week and election will be scheduled for June, at least three months from the vote.
At this rate, and if the opposing sides continue to stick steadfastly to their positions—the ultra-Orthodox are insisting on passing draft laws that will grant exemptions to yeshiva students whose Torah study is their profession, while opponents oppose any such bill before the state budget is passed—the Knesset will be dispersed shortly before the Passover holiday recess.
The government’s original plan was to pass the 2019 budget next week (March 13-15), a move that would have allowed the current coalition to hold steady until November 2019.
But then the ultra-Orthodox parties realized that the last state budget for the present term, which is also their last lever of pressure to deal with a High Court of Justice ruling requiring a new draft law, might slip away from them - and in consultation with the Council of Torah Sages, a decision was made that would likely shorten the life of the current government.