Netanyahu’s coalition threatened by dispute over exempting ultra-Orthodox Israelis from military service

A decision from the Supreme Court has forced the prime minister to quickly forge an agreement that will satisfy both his faithful partners in the executive and the more secular sectors. Tens of thousands protested against the leader in Jerusalem

A group of ultra-Orthodox Israelis waiting to process their draft exemptions at the Kiryat Ono recruitment base last Thursday.
A group of ultra-Orthodox Israelis waiting to process their draft exemptions at the Kiryat Ono recruitment base last Thursday.Hannah McKay (REUTERS)
Antonio Pita

New times, same divisions. Almost six months ago, the Jewish majority in Israel experienced the Hamas attack as a shared tragedy. With nearly 1,200 dead and more than 240 hostages, of which less than half have returned home, on October 7, 2023, the country put aside the decades-old divisions that came to the fore in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform, which triggered mass demonstrations.

Since then, however, that unity — promoted via the slogan “Together we will win,” which appears from illuminated road signs to notices on the number of free spaces in a parking lot — has been cracking. Israel is seeing growing protests, with sometimes intersecting demands. This was the case for last week’s demonstrations calling for Netanyahu’s resignation, early elections and an agreement for the release of the hostages. On Sunday, tens of thousands of citizens rallied in Jerusalem to protest against the prime minister, one of the largest mobilizations since the Gaza war began.

One of the issues that most divides the 80% of the Israeli population that is Jewish is the fact that since the country’s creation in 1948, ultra-Orthodox Israelis have been exempted from mandatory military service. The authorities of Israel — a country built largely by secularists — agreed to the military exemption when the ultra-Orthodox community numbered just 40,000 people (5% of the population). Seventy-five years later, the matter has acquired a new dimension: ultra-Orthodox Jews now represent 13% of Israelis and — given each family has an average of nearly seven children — they will account for 32% in 2065, according to projections by the Central Statistics Office.

Enlisting ultra-Orthodox Israelis was already an issue for the Zionist center-left and part of the more secular right, which argues that all the country’s Jews should “share the military and fiscal burden.” But the invasion of Gaza has put the debate center stage and is stirring even more emotions. On the one hand, because half a thousand soldiers have died between the October 7 attacks and the war in Gaza (and tens of thousands more have left jobs and families behind), while ultra-Orthodox Israelis have stayed at home and barely a thousand have enlisted voluntarily. And on the other hand, because the Gaza war — the likes of which has not been seen in half a century — has once again shown that, despite technological advances, armies still need troops on the ground. The dilemma was summed up Friday by leading political commentator Nahum Barnea: “The generalized exemption for the ultra-Orthodox creates a manpower problem for the army, a political problem for Netanyahu and an ideological problem for Jewish society,” she wrote in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

Withdrawal of funds

It is a deep-running issue that rose to the surface last week. On Thursday, Netanyahu announced that he had failed to reach an agreement to renew the draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara asked for a “temporary adjustment period” and, surprisingly, the Supreme Court went further, ordering the state to end subsidies to yeshivot (Jewish religious seminaries) that have students who should be in the army — an estimated 56,000 people aged 18 to 24,

According to Yitzchak Goldknopf, Minister of Housing and leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, the Supreme Court sentence bears the “mark of Cain.” “Without the Torah, we have no right to exist. We will fight in any way for the right of any Jew to study the Torah, and we will not make concessions,” he added.

The decision threatens the stability of the national unity government. After winning the 2022 election, Netanyahu joined forces with the ultranationalist right and ultra-Orthodox parties. But, after October 7, he added parties with secular support in order to have a broad political consensus in the face of war. These groups, however, oppose the military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

Both sides have views on the subject that are difficult to reconcile. If Netanyahu pushes for an agreement that significantly increases military service, he will likely lose the support of the ultra-Orthodox groups (18 of the 64 deputies of the original coalition). In the opposite scenario, he will be left without two respected secular former chiefs of staff and even his Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, who rejected the proposal presented by Netanyahu, despite the fact that they both belong to the Likud party. He would lose retired general Benny Gantz, who, according to polls, would be the clear winner of an early election. Surveys show that Gantz would win 33 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, while Likud would win 19.

“I think the problem can be solved,” Netanyahu said on Sunday in a press conference before undergoing surgery for a hernia detected in a routine check-up. The Supreme Court has given the executive 30 days to present a plan and until June 30 to approve it. Netanyahu was optimistic on Sunday about the possibilities of reaching an agreement that is “not total, but broad” in the next 30 days.

For now, ultra-Orthodox groups remain in his coalition, waiting for his next move. And public funds — about 400 million shekels (around $108 million) annually — barely account for 7.5% of the budget of religious schools, which can compensate the shortfall with emergency donations.

The new Palestinian government of technocrats sets out without a horizon of return to Gaza

Mohamed Mustafa is sworn in this Sunday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Mohamed Mustafa is sworn in this Sunday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.Mohammed Torokman (REUTERS)

The new Cabinet of the Palestinian Authority (PA) was sworn in on Sunday in Ramallah, in the West Bank. The move marks a step forward in its uncertain path towards returning to govern Gaza. The new Cabinet, made up of 23 ministers, is full of new faces. Only Interior Minister Ziad Hab al-Reeh has held on to his position. Prime Minister Mohamed Mustafa will also lead the Foreign Ministry. An economist trained in the United States with experience at the World Bank, Mustafa is Washington's trump card to reform the PA, so that it can regain control of Gaza, which it lost in the 2007 elections. The president, Mahmoud Abbas, 89, will continue to wield most of the power.

In a statement Thursday, Mustafa said the government's first priority is reaching an immediate ceasefire in Gaza that involves a complete Israeli withdrawal from the enclave. The new Cabinet includes eight ministers from the Gaza Strip and has created a Relief portfolio, with a view to reconstruction.

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