As It Happens

How debate over ultra-Orthodox Jews in the military triggered a 2nd election in Israel

A heated debate over whether Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews should be exempt from mandatory military service is sending Israelis back to the polls for the second time this year.

Arguments over the religious exemption prevented Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a coalition government

Military service in Israel is mandatory for the vast majority of people over the age of 18. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

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A heated debate over whether Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews should be exempt from mandatory military service is sending Israelis back to the polls for the second time this year.

Israelis voted in April to re-elect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But after he failed to form a governing coalition before a midnight deadline Thursday, Israel's parliament voted to dissolve itself, sending the country to an unprecedented second snap election.

The main sticking point wasn't the Palestinian peace process, or even the corruption allegations swirling around the prime minister.

Instead, Netanyahu clashed with his former ally Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, over Lieberman's demand to subject ultra-Orthodox religious males to the military draft.

Shmuel Rosner, a political editor and columnist for the Jewish Journal, wrote about this issue for the New York Times. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

Can you just paint a picture for us of just the craziness that unfolded [Wednesday] as Mr. Netanyahu tried so desperately to cobble together a coalition?

First we need to understand that this is an unprecedented situation in Israel's history.

When Israelis go to the polls, they vote for parties. The parties need to vote to form a coalition of the majority in the parliament, in the Israeli Knesset, of 61.

At the day of the election, Netanyahu's right-wing coalition seemed to be doing quite well. They won a majority of 65 seats and everybody assumed that the previous coalition is just going to come back with slight changes and, you know, keep ruling the country.

But apparently in the process of forming the coalition, there were differences of opinion between different parties, different members of the coalition, and a few days ago it suddenly dawned on us that the prime minister is unable to resolve these differences.

Ultimately, there were not enough members in his coalition. He was able to get to 60, but not to 61 as he needs to do.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents a graph of Yisrael Beitienu support during a press conference on May 30. Netanyahu blames the party's leader for thwarting his attempt to form a coalition government. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

This issue that actually broke things down ... was the issue of military service and the Israel Defense Forces. There's a mandatory conscription in Israel for both men and women to be part of this service. Why are ultra-Orthodox Jews exempt from service in the first place?

We need to go back to almost ancient Israeli history. When Israel was initiated ... it was just a few years after the end of the Holocaust and the world of ultra-Orthodox Jews was in ruin. There were very few ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Israel.

And they argued, not without reason, that if they will join the military, the whole culture of ultra-Orthodox study of the Torah is going to go away. And the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, thought that letting 400 — that was the number at the time — 400 yeshiva students, young men who study Torah all day long, to give them [an exemption] from military service is not the end of the world.

But since the ultra-Orthodox community grows very fast thanks to high birth rates, today it's not 400. It's more like 50,000.

For a number of decades, this is an issue in Israeli politics. Many Israelis are frustrated and angry at the fact that there is no equal share of the burden and that ultra-Orthodox are exempt from military service.

So this time, this issue became so ... controversial that it basically destroyed the chance of forming a new coalition.

Yisrael Beiteino party leader Avigdor Lieberman says Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews should have to serve in the military. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

The person who opposed it most strenuously, Avigdor Lieberman, this strong Israeli nationalist, also on the right, and within the party he is the one that actually said, "No, we're not going to support this anymore." He's pulled the plug on this idea that ultra-Orthodox Jews should have this exemption. So how popular a move is that for Mr. Lieberman to make?

Mr. Lieberman seems to be gaining in the polls. Obviously, his move was somewhat popular in certain circles.

But one has to remember that by doing this he also destroyed the chance for forming a right-wing coalition. So for right-wing voters who dislike the idea of exemption for ultra-Orthodox, there is still a dilemma here between ... two things that they want.

On the one hand, they want ultra-Orthodox youngsters to serve in the military. On the other hand, they want to see a right-wing government. And when these two priorities collide, you know, it's a tough thing to resolve. And the voters will have to consider the issue and see where the chips fall.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men rally following the arrest of a young man who refused to serve in the Israeli the army as they protest outside the Atlit military prison in the city of Haifa on Dec. 9, 2013. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

I just want to get a sense of how people in Israel feel about this exemption. I know the IDF is obliged to protect settlers in the occupied territories, and a growing number of those settlers are ultra-Orthodox. How much resentment is there among those soldiers that they're protecting violent situations where people, the settlers themselves, don't have to be part of the IDF?

It needs to be understood that the IDF in Israel is almost a sacred institution. The military here is revered, is admired. Soldiers are the most popular ... group in Israel.

And the opposite is true for those who do not serve in the military. The group that does not participate in the defence of the country, people who do not wear uniform, who do not join with everybody else to secure Israel, they become less and less popular.

But as the election approaches, does the fact that there is this rift in the right within Mr. Netanyahu's coalition, does this give any advantage to the left in Israeli politics, which we've hardly heard from in many years?

Not really. The left in Israel is not in a position to be in power. There are not enough voters who agree with left-leaning ideas. So the battle is truly within the centre-right of Israel's political map.

But things got complicated because there is a fairly reasonable chance that three months from now ... we will be in the exact same situation. Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc will gain more seats in the parliament, but he would still have to come to terms with Mr. Liberman and his party.

And it's not clear how they're going to resolve the situation if we get to the exact same position next time around. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity. 



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