How ultra-Orthodox conscription could destroy Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu has till Sunday evening to present a fix to Israel’s controversial conscription law. If he fails, his government likely fails with him.

How ultra-Orthodox conscription could destroy Benjamin Netanyahu0

Netanyahu addresses supporters on March 24, 2021. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

This Sunday, Israel is scheduled for a political crisis.

At midnight Israel time on April 1, the government will hit a deadline for changing its policy on the military draft. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will then be required to send conscription notices to roughly 66,000 ultra-Orthodox men, who had been previously exempted by a law carving out special privileges for students at religious academies, or yeshivot.

This might sound like an obscure internal Israeli political fight, but it actually has the potential to alter the entire trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The conscription issue splits Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government apart at the seams. Netanyahu depends on ultra-Orthodox parties for his parliamentary majority; if he permits mass conscription of yeshiva students, they’ll abandon him. But if he gives the ultra-Orthodox what they want, he’ll run afoul of key members of his own right-wing Likud party, potentially prompting their defections.

These scenarios both end the same way: with the collapse of Netanyahu’s governing coalition and new elections, which Likud would (per every poll) lose by a wide margin. Netanyahu’s defeat would almost certainly usher his more centrist rival Benny Gantz into power. And while some of Gantz’s policies toward the war and the Palestinians would look the same, they would likely differ on some critical issues — including the all-important questions of Gaza’s political future and a Palestinian state.

Of course, potential change is just that: potential. There are many ways this scenario for real change could go awry.

Netanyahu understands he is facing a major threat, and he is working overtime to come up with a solution that could postpone or even avoid the draft crisis. Even if the draft begins, it would likely be some time before it would trigger elections, creating time for polls to shift. And even if Netanyahu falls, there’s no guarantee that Gantz — a pragmatic hawk by disposition — would implement major changes to Israel’s current policy.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that this issue is more of an existential threat to Netanyahu’s continued time in office than anything else since October 7. “Governments in Israel have fallen over this very issue,” says Dahlia Scheindlin, a political scientist and leading Israeli pollster. “I think it’s more serious than any [post-October 7 political] crisis we’ve had.”

Given that Netanyahu’s government is one of the biggest barriers blocking the path to a true solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is no small thing.

The tricky issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription, explained

In Israel’s fractured multiparty system, no one party ever commands a majority of the seats in the Knesset (legislature). Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party holds a plurality, but it needed support from smaller parties to form its current majority. These smaller parties come in two flavors: the extreme nationalist right and the ultra-Orthodox.

While both types of parties are religious and socially conservative, they differ sharply in their policy priorities. Far-right nationalists’ primary concern is enshrining indefinite Israeli Jewish control over all the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. Ultra-Orthodox parties, by contrast, care primarily about preserving and expanding the special rights and privileges the Israeli state accords to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Of these rights, none is more important than the yeshiva exemption from the military draft. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that the best and most important thing a man can do is study scripture. For this reason, roughly half of all ultra-Orthodox men do no paid work, depending on government support and charity to survive. Military service in particular gets in the way of studying at a yeshiva, disrupting the traditional life of an ultra-Orthodox man.

But exempting yeshiva students from military service has long struck other Israelis as deeply unfair. Why do their children have to serve, putting their lives on the line and future plans on hold, while the ultra-Orthodox sit and study? Why is attending university or entering the workplace less important than attending yeshiva?

Israeli police intervene Jews who protest against conscription

Ultra-Orthodox men demonstrate in Jerusalem against conscription on March 18, 2024. Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu/Getty Images

Over the course of decades, Israeli governments have repeatedly attempted to reach some sort of policy compromise that would balance the demands of the ultra-Orthodox with the rest of Israel’s plea for “equality of burden.” Again and again, the Israeli Supreme Court has found that these balancing acts unfairly privilege the ultra-Orthodox over other citizens, forcing the ruling government to go back to the legislative drawing board. Most recently, the Court set an April 1 deadline for conscription to begin.

Politically, the timing could scarcely be worse. After October 7 and in the midst of a full-scale war, Israeli opposition to the ultra-Orthodox exemption has hit historic highs. Netanyahu is caught between a key coalition partner and most other Israelis — a tension that needs to be resolved somehow by 6 pm ET on Sunday.

How this crisis might lead to Netanyahu’s fall

Experts on Israeli politics see roughly three possible scenarios for how this crisis could unfold. In two of them, Netanyahu’s government falls and goes to elections that every single poll suggests he’d lose.

Scenario 1: Netanyahu fails to take action before the deadline. The IDF would subsequently be required to send conscription notices to tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men, though full enforcement would (per the Jerusalem Post) be delayed till August.

This is a red line for Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition. Once conscription begins, “the two ultra-Orthodox parties will pull out of the government immediately and will call for new elections,” says Michael Koplow, the chief policy officer of the center-left Israel Policy Forum think tank.

They can force these new elections by voting with the opposition parties in a motion of no confidence, as their combined forces amount to a clear majority.

Scenario 2: Netanyahu comes up with a policy framework that satisfies the ultra-Orthodox but alienates key members of his own party. Netanyahu has tried to move in that direction but faced public opposition from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who said that a proposed legislative framework is unacceptably lenient.

Netanyahu’s majority is narrow; he controls 64 out of a total of 120 seats in the Knesset. If Gallant and just four other more moderate members of the Likud support a no-confidence vote, the government collapses and elections begin. According to Scheindlin, there are enough Likud parliamentarians known to have reservations about Netanyahu that the threat of an internal rebellion is quite serious.

Scenario 3: Netanyahu manages to temporarily save his government by securing an extension from the Supreme Court. To get such an exemption, Netanyahu does not need to present a full draft of an ultra-Orthodox exemption. Instead, he merely needs to convince the court that he’s making a good-faith effort to get a law they might eventually approve.

To get here, Netanyahu needs to convince Israeli Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara that he’s moving toward a proposal that would pass Supreme Court scrutiny. If Baharav-Miara won’t defend the government’s position in court, that’s a very strong signal to the justices that what they’re working on is not a good-faith effort to pass a new law.

This could prove difficult. Baharav-Miara reportedly believes that any legislation must include hard recruitment targets for ultra-Orthodox men — something that the ultra-Orthodox parties fundamentally oppose. If this and other impasses over policy details continue, Netanyahu may not be able to come up with something in time.

The prime minister is racing against the clock. And right now, it looks like he’s losing.

How the coalition’s collapse could change the course of the war

If Netanyahu’s government does fall, he will not be kicked out of office immediately. Instead, he will remain in office as a caretaker prime minister until elections can be held —by law, not until three months after a government falls. That means the soonest any elections could be held is early July, and it would most likely be later than that.

In the midst of a horrific war, this timeframe feels like an eternity. The people of Gaza are starving right now. Why should anyone care what happens to the Israeli government in several months?

There are many possible answers to this question, but perhaps the simplest relates to how the war could end and what a subsequent peace might look like.

Netanyahu has, for political and ideological reasons, taken a position on the war that is at once hardline and vague. He has repeatedly and categorically ruled out putting the moderate Palestinian Authority in charge of Gaza after the war, let alone any postwar move to a two-state solution. At the same time, he has refused to specify a serious alternative plan — or even define what victory looks like.

A coalition government led by Benny Gantz’s National Unity party would almost certainly be different.

Benny Gantz answering questions from reporters in a hallway.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz in Washington on March 4, 2024. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Unlike Netanyahu, who is beholden to the far right, Gantz’s coalition partners would likely range from the more mainstream right to the left. Gantz is a general by background and remains close with the security establishment; he would probably define a more concrete and limited understanding of “victory” in the Gaza war, which would likely bring it to a swifter close. And while not an ideological dove, he also is not implacably opposed to a Palestinian state. This makes him more susceptible than Netanyahu would be to the heavy pressure from Washington to make moves toward greater Palestinian self-determination.

In the immediate term, that would likely lead him to move toward the US proposal for the Palestinian Authority to take over as the ruling power in Gaza after the war. In the longer run, it might lead to something even bigger.

“I think that he is much more malleable and subject to pressures from the international community, especially if there is a sense of overwhelming historic inevitability brought to bear from the global community,” says Scheindlin. “I really think that could eventually lead to reopening the need for a comprehensive political resolution.”

Of course, Scheindlin cautions, such a scenario is “a very long time away” from coming to fruition. Many things could prevent such a development, ranging from Netanyahu turning his poll numbers around to a Trump victory lessening international pressure on Israel. There are many sound reasons to avoid predicting things getting better in the Israel-Palestine conflict, many of which have been on heartrending display during the past six months of horror.

One thing is clear: With Netanyahu in power, peace and justice are unattainable. If the fight over ultra-Orthodox conscription does bring down his government, there’s a chance — however remote — that this could change.


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