By AMY TEIBEL, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — 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 daily.
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 attack.
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 scandal.
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-Orthodox population."
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 support.
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."
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