Australia/Israel Review

Government rocked by Court conscription ruling

Jul 3, 2024 | Ilan Evyatar

The Israeli Cabinet: Old political alliances are now teetering on a precipice (Image: GPO/Flickr)
The Israeli Cabinet: Old political alliances are now teetering on a precipice (Image: GPO/Flickr)

Two weeks after leading Opposition figure Benny Gantz pulled out of the Israeli Emergency Government formed after October 7, the ruling coalition was already beginning to show clear signs of strain, as its rival elements started pulling in different directions regarding an array of issues.

Then, on June 25 a unanimous Israeli Supreme Court decision required the Government to immediately start drafting ultra-Orthodox religious academy students – ending a long-standing exemption – and stop subsidising religious schools where students who should be in the army were studying. This ruling presents the ruling Netanyahu-led coalition of right-wing and religious parties with its greatest crisis since it took office in December 2022. 

Gantz withdrew his National Union party from Government on June 9. 

On June 20, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made an impassioned call to the members of his remaining “Bloc of 64” coalition – which is still a majority in the 120-seat Knesset – to “get a grip” and “put aside petty politics.”

His statement came shortly after Economy Minister Nir Barkat, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said he would not support the Government’s ultra-orthodox haredi draft bill in its current form. 

“We are at war on several fronts, and we face great challenges and difficult decisions,” Netanyahu said in his video statement. “Therefore, I vehemently demand that all coalition partners get a grip and rise to the occasion. This is not the time for petty politics… I demand of everyone – put aside any other consideration. Put aside any partisan interest. Stand as one, united, behind our troops.”  

Barkat, a former paratrooper officer and tech entrepreneur who is expected to challenge Netanyahu for the Likud leadership next time around, said “several other” Likud MKs would also oppose the bill. 

The proposed legislation would have led to a small increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox men enlisted in the IDF over several years, but it has been labelled “more of the same” and a “draft-dodging” bill by opponents demanding much more substantive and rapid changes to the long-standing draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox religious students. At press time, it was unclear if the bill was still going to go ahead following the Supreme Court ruling.

Barkat did not name his fellow rebels, but Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has already come out publicly against the bill, while notoriously vocal Likud backbencher Tali Gottlieb has stated, “I believe in service for all, including yeshiva students. The bill should be removed from the public agenda.”

It is the first time in his current term in office that Netanyahu looked unable to secure the support of his own party for a crucial vote. 

The Haredi draft issue was not the only front on which Netanyahu’s coalition was under pressure. His relations with the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas had already been seriously undermined by his failure to push through a promised bill that would have given the state rabbinate more sway in the appointment of municipal rabbis. The “Rabbis Bill” would have allocated tens of millions of shekels for municipal rabbis to be appointed by the ultra-Orthodox-controlled chief rabbinate, leading critics to call it the “Jobs Bill”.

Once again, Netanyahu had faced opposition within his own party, with Gottlieb threatening to block the bill’s passage through the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

The ultra-Orthodox parties were thus already furious at Netanyahu’s inability to advance their interests before the Supreme Court ruling.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri had reportedly made a midnight call to Netanyahu on June 18 and told him he was “losing control” over his coalition. According to the daily Israel Hayom, when Netanyahu told him that he wouldn’t be able to pass the Rabbis Bill, Deri castigated the Prime Minister, saying, “There has never been a government as bad for the haredi public as this Government.”

The once unbreakable alliance between Netanyahu and Deri appears to now be on a precipice.

United Torah Judaism has also been making its dissatisfaction public, going as far as to warn that the party could break with Likud. “UTJ has lost its trust and its will to be a part of this coalition. Right now, I can’t tell you what the straw that breaks the camel’s back will be, but we are definitely close,” UTJ parliamentarian Moshe Roth told the Times of Israel.

Together, Shas and UTJ hold 18 seats in the Knesset. Were either of them to walk, Netanyahu would lose his majority. While that does not seem likely for the moment – these parties are unlikely to fare better in promoting ultra-Orthodox interests doing business with the secularist Opposition – the threat is most certainly in the air.

Netanyahu has a few weeks to go until the Knesset’s summer recess and will be struggling to find a resolution to the draft issue that will keep his coalition together until then. 

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partner Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power party was among those opposing the Rabbis Bill – not because of ideological opposition, but as a source of leverage to try to obtain a place at the table when it comes to decision-making regarding the Gaza war. Ben-Gvir wanted a place in the War Cabinet after Gantz and his fellow former IDF chief of staff and National Union partner, Gadi Eisenkot, left it when they departed the Government. 

Netanyahu’s response to Ben-Gvir’s exercise in Machiavellianism was first to accuse him of leaking state secrets and then to dissolve the War Cabinet completely. 

In its absence, the Prime Minister is now convening the official Security Cabinet more often, while taking major tactical decisions together with a group of his close advisors. Ben-Gvir is not among them, and neither is Treasurer Bezalel Smotrich of the hard-right Religious Zionism party, who also sought a place in the War Cabinet. 

Netanyahu appears to have appeased Smotrich for the moment by giving him increased civilian control over the West Bank – a move Smotrich desired to pave the way for increased Jewish settlement in the territory. 

Smotrich has been tanking in the polls, with his Religious Zionism party barely clearing the 3.25% electoral threshold, and thus could lose his place in the Knesset were elections to be held today. 

Ben-Gvir, on the other hand, has seen his stock rise by positioning himself as a hard-right alternative to Likud. Nevertheless, Ben-Gvir is also unlikely to want to actually bring down the Government at the present moment. 

Politically, Netanyahu has recently regained some ground in the polls and is not far behind parity with Gantz’s National Union, which has been leading most polling since October 7. This could potentially lead him at some stage to conclude new elections are a lesser risk than his existing plan to keep trying to hold his fractious and angry coalition together. However, the pro-Netanyahu bloc remains behind in the polls, and there is currently no sign of any such shift. 

Moreover, the latest polling also shows that if a hypothetical right-wing bloc were to bring together former Mossad director Yossi Cohen, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar (who recently split from National Union), this would likely become the largest parliamentary faction. 

A June 23 Channel 13 poll found that if elections were held today, the National Union would be the biggest party in the Knesset with 25 seats, ahead of Likud with 21. However, a hypothetical new right-wing bloc containing Cohen, Lieberman, Bennett and Sa’ar could gain 34 seats. 

Moreover, Netanyahu’s one-time advisor Naftali Bennett, who served as prime minister in the short-lived “government of change” from June 2021 to June 2022, overtakes his former boss in a June 22 Channel 12 poll looking at who Israelis believe is the most suitable person to be Israel’s prime minister. 

Netanyahu may be under pressure and still lagging in the polls, but he is a masterful political operator. 

Can Israel’s most consummate political operator withstand the political pressures and keep his coalition alive? And if Israel does go to elections, can he once again overcome corruption investigations, and the additional burden of having presided over October 7, to produce yet another political miracle? 


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