Instability in Israeli government leads Netanyahu to call early elections

Yisrael Beiteinu party left the government over Gaza action, but Haredi draft law is biggest issue


GOVERNING: Israel’s parliament meeting in the Knesset in December before it was adjourned until after new elections. At center is Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party

By Sivan Karz, Staff Writer

Elections in Israel are now set to take place seven months early, as instability within Knesset coalitions and corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complicate Israel’s political scene and the legislative body has been adjourned for now.

In a unanimous vote Dec. 24, leaders of the five factions in Netanyahu’s government decided to dissolve the current Knesset, following disagreements over a bill that would draft members of the Haredi community to the Israeli army and a generally hectic political environment.

Rather than taking place in November, elections are set for April 9.  The Knesset will not meet again until after the election.

Elections in Israel are supposed to be held every four years, but they are usually early because there are so many small factions within the Knesset that it is difficult to maintain a stable majority and pass legislation that satisfies the many opinions in the coalition.

Jewish History and Israel Education teacher Jeremy Shine explained that any party that does not receive at least 3.25 percent of the popular vote, which is Israel’s electoral threshold, will not gain any representation in the Knesset. Three and a quarter percent will provide a  party with about 4 seats.

The problem with this political system is that a party can have a greater influence on the government than the actual size of its representation of the electoral vote.

— Mr. Shine, Jewish History and Israel Education Teacher

There are 120 seats in the Knesset, and leaders like Prime Minister Netanyahu need a majority — 62 seats — to lead the country.  The various party leaders set conditions for joining a coalition, and leave if there’s something they strongly oppose.

“The problem with this political system is that a party can have a greater influence on the government than the actual size of its representation of the electoral vote,” said Mr. Shine.

“For example, even though Shas only got seven seats, the leader of Shas could threaten Netanyahu if they were part of the coalition, saying ‘If you don’t continue to subsidize all our yeshivot, we are withdrawing from the government.’

“It doesn’t make for strong, stable politics usually with the proportional representation system. But in terms of the principle of democracy, it’s meant to be far more representative than what you would have in either America or Great Britain, because a lot more voices are being represented,” said Mr. Shine.

Netanyahu’s current coalition has exactly 62 seats, meaning that a single party wanting to leave can cause it to fall. In December, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman pulled his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of the coalition over what he considered the government’s inadequate response to severe rocket fire from Gaza in November.

The so-called “Haredi Draft Law” would require yeshivas and the Haredi community to increase  the number of enlistees to the IDF. Yeshivas failing to meet requirements for drafted students would face financial sanctions.

The Boiling Point interviewed David Aaronson, Chief of Staff to Former Ambassador Danny Ayalon, who served as Israeli ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2006, by telephone Jan. 13. From 2009 to 2013, Amb. Ayalon represented the Yisrael Beiteinu party in the Knesset — the same party as Avigdor Lieberman.

According to Mr. Aaronson, the question of Haredi service in the IDF has always been controversial. He said it’s particularly controversial now because when the bill requiring increased Haredi enlistment was passed several years ago, a compromise at the time decided that it would not go into effect for a few years.

The deadline for an alternative piece of legislation to pass was January 15, however the Supreme Court in Israel has extended the deadline to July 28, after the early elections. In the past, a law called the Tal Law made IDF service optional for members of the Haredi community if they wanted to learn in yeshiva instead.

It might be better for them to serve their country in uniform or it might be better for them to serve in Yeshiva.

— David Aaronson, aid to former Israeli Ambassador Danny Ayalon

Those in Israel who are in favor of more Haredi people serving the country, generally more secular people, say that since everyone else in Israel is drafted to the army at the age of 18, Haredim should not be exempted. They claim people’s lives are on the line and it’s unjust to let a specific group be exempt from that service.

Those in Israel opposing the bill, mainly the Haredi community, say the study of Torah by the Haredi community is just as critical for Israel’s survival. They also argue that if young religious men serve in the military, they will wander off of their religious path.

Mr. Aaronson said he is not Haredi himself and doesn’t want to tell them what to do.

“It might be better for them to serve their country in uniform or it might be better for them to serve in Yeshiva,” Mr. Aaronson said. “Most people probably don’t want to have to make that decision because it costs them politically. It’s a very sensitive issue so most people try to stay out of it as much as they can.”

Last year, Shalhevet had a Town Hall regarding the topic, with students speaking both for and against Haredis having to serve in the IDF along with other Israelis.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu is under fire and is being investigated for suspected bribery among other crimes. In early December, the Israeli Police recommended Netanyahu face criminal prosecution on charges accepting gifts of hundreds of thousands of dollars and giving political favors in return, as well as exchanging positive coverage in a popular Israeli newspaper for power.

But for now, he is still the prime minister, and Mr. Aaronson said he can continue to serve as long as he is not convicted. However, if he is convicted and found guilty, Netanyahu would have to resign.

“The law is that if a minister in the Coalition government is indicted, he must resign,” Mr. Aaronson said, but “… if a prime minister is indicted he does not have to resign.”

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