Netanyahu is threatened by the decision to exempt ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service

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A stunning Israeli Supreme Court order to freeze funding for extreme religious yeshivas unless their students join the army could tear apart Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition as the war with Hamas rages on.

The Israeli government has until Monday to submit a new national conscription plan, following an order Thursday that affirmed a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that found the current system, which has historically exempted ultra-Orthodox Jews from service, to be discriminatory.

A large majority of Israelis believe that their exemption from military service is unfair.

The decision came at a time when Netanyahu asked the court to extend a period of 30 days to reach a compromise on exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews, who constitute 13% of Israel’s population, from military service.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fragile ruling coalition could be severely torn apart if a court rules to overturn a draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews. Reuters
Israel's Supreme Court has issued a temporary order freezing funding for ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious schools unless their students join the army. AP

The exemption issue has divided Netanyahu's fragile government, which consists of secular lawmakers and ultra-Orthodox Jews divided over the court's ruling.

The ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, who were promised that a decades-long exemption from the country’s military conscription would become permanent, criticized the court’s decision, calling it the “Mark of Cain.” Bloomberg reported.

A protest to demand equality in military service in Jerusalem on March 26, 2024. Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

But centrists who joined Netanyahu's war cabinet in October backed the decision and insisted more troops were needed as the Jewish state faces threats from Hamas in Gaza alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“The issue is not the Supreme Court,” said Benny Gantz, a war cabinet member and opposition leader who threatened to resign from Israel’s unity government over the draft case. “The issue is our need for soldiers in a difficult war and the need of our society for everyone to share in the honor of serving the nation.”

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If ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition leave the government over the issue, it would trigger new elections at a time when Netanyahu is stumbling in the polls.

Israeli police detain extremist Jewish men blocking a street to protest the ruling on March 18, 2024. AFP Photo/Leo Correa

While most Israelis are required to join the army and then serve in the reserves, for decades ultra-Orthodox Jews have been allowed to study Torah full-time and receive government salaries.

This postponement has sparked discontent among the broader public, especially as the country approaches its sixth month of war in which more than 500 soldiers have been killed and tens of thousands of Israelis have seen their lives turned upside down by being called up for reserve duty.

With mail wires.

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