Ruling could spark coalition crisis in Israel (AP) Associated Press) By AMY TEIBEL JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 02/22/12 1:16 pm ET)
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JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced the unwelcome
possibility of a coalition crisis on Wednesday after Israel´s Supreme
Court, in a landmark decision, overturned a law that has helped ultra-
Orthodox Jewish men avoid military service.
The ruling addresses an issue that is at the center of a simmering
cultural war between religious and secular Jews, and adds to
Netanyahu´s headaches as he prepares to travel to the White House for
critical talks about Iran´s nuclear program.
Antagonism toward the ultra-Orthodox has grown in recent months over
a series of incidents in which religious extremists were seen as
attempting to impose their norms on wider society — such as the
segregation of women on buses and even sidewalks.
The draft exemptions have increasingly become a touchstone issue
among Israel´s secular majority, which is required to do up to three
years of compulsory military service. More than 60,000 religious men
were granted exemptions last year, permitted instead to study in
seminaries while receiving welfare grants. In its ruling, the court
said it sought to divide Israel´s burdens equally among its citizens.
The decision threatened to shake up Netanyahu´s government by forcing
it to deal with the issue and come up with a new system. Both ultra-
Orthodox and fiercely secular parties sit in his coalition, and the
court ruling could force Netanyahu to choose sides.
"The prime minister now finds himself in the kind of situation he
detests most. He has to decide. He has to choose between two
dangerous and difficult options, each one of which could be
catastrophic for him," wrote commentator Ben Caspit of the Maariv
The prime minister, who just weeks ago had hoped to extend the soon-
to-expire law, attempted to play down the controversy
Wednesday. "What we do now is formulate a new law, another law, that
will provide for a much more equal sharing of the burden," he said.
The ferment comes at a difficult time for Netanyahu, who is set to
travel to the White House in early March for a critical meeting with
President Barack Obama.
Both Israel and the U.S. both believe that Iran is developing nuclear
weapons. But differences have emerged over how to stop Iran. The U.S.
has said that tough economic sanctions are the best tactic, while
Israel has hinted that military action might be needed. The Americans
have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to an Israeli
Despite the high stakes for the White House meeting, Netanyahu may
need to focus on his troubles back home. In addition to the coalition
difficulties, his own office is in turmoil over a sexual harassment
Earlier this week, Netanyahu´s chief of staff was forced to resign
because of allegations that he harassed a female employee of the
prime minister´s office.
In a statement, Netanyahu thanked his ousted aid for his "dedicated
and good work," and made no mention of the harassment allegations.
Adding to the whiff of scandal, Netanyahu on Wednesday also accepted
the resignation of his chief spokesman, Yoaz Hendel, who had been one
of the whistleblowers against the chief of staff. Media reports said
Netanyahu initiated the resignation.
Netanyahu´s two major coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox Shas
party and the secular Yisrael Beitenu party, both expressed hope
Wednesday that differences over draft exemptions could be resolved.
But differences were already evident.
Yisrael Beitenu´s leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, said he
did not want to start a religious war. "We hope the next law will act
as a bridge to create unity in the nation, including with the ultra-
Shas spokesman Yakov Betzalel said he was confident seminary students
would continue to pursue religious studies rather than serve, and
expressed hope a new military exemption deal would be struck that
would meet the court´s standards.
Asked if a coalition crisis was brewing, Betzalel replied, "No, no,
no. I don´t see it in the offing." He predicted the new law would be
similar to the current legislation, "with minor changes."
Such an outcome would likely inflame public opinion.
In his commentary, Caspit called the ruling "a historic decision that
will have dramatic political and social implications" and said
Netanyahu has two choices: to find a "more reasonable arrangement and
begin to draft the ultra-Orthodox into the military and community
service" — or "to push through a bill that circumvents the Supreme
Court´s ruling in coordination with the ultra-Orthodox."
The striking down of the law gives Netanyahu an opportunity to
rectify a divisive historical distortion dating back to the earliest
days of Israel´s independence.
Israel´s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, handed the country´s
small ultra-religious minority an array of concessions to win their
In a move many here have since come to regret, he exempted 400 ultra-
Orthodox seminary students from the draft and gave them money for
living expenses so they could devote their lives to Jewish thought
and rebuild the great seats of Jewish learning destroyed in Europe
during the Nazi Holocaust.
The number of exemptions has since ballooned, to the point that
62,500 ultra-Orthodox men avoided the draft in 2010, according to
data published Wednesday in Israeli newspapers. Thousands of ultra-
Orthodox families, meanwhile, came to depend on welfare because
fathers were pursuing religious studies instead of working.
The intertwined evasion of military duty and dependence on state
handouts have deeply riven Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox now
account for nearly one-sixth of the Jewish population of 6 million.
Ironically, the law overturned on Tuesday was enacted in 2002 to
reverse that upward trend. But due to loopholes, the percentage of
ultra-Orthodox who did not serve in the military have grown. The law,
the court ruled, "did not meet expectations, nor did it lead to the
required changes ... concerning an equal sharing of the burden." (©
2012 The Associated Press 02/22/12)
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