Israel ministers advance bill in bid to prevent early polls

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli ministers gave initial approval Monday to a bill exempting young ultra-Orthodox men from military service, a spokesman said, the first concrete step towards resolving a crisis that has threatened early elections.

But while the ministerial committee for legislation approved the controversial bill, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has not said whether he will accept the compromise.

The crisis within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition follows speculation over whether the premier wants early polls to bolster his political standing ahead of his possible indictment for bribery in the coming months.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said he wants the coalition to last its entire term, which ends in November 2019.

The coalition has been at loggerheads since ultra-Orthodox parties said they would not support next year's budget unless a law is passed to exempt religious students from military service.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said he would resign if the budget does not pass in the Knesset's winter session, which ends on March 18.

Some in Netanyahu's right-wing coalition suggested the premier was deliberately allowing the crisis to worsen to expedite elections for personal reasons.

But in a late meeting Sunday, ultra-Orthodox factions told Netanyahu they would agree to support the budget if the military conscription bill passed the ministerial committee and an initial parliamentary reading, postponing a final vote until the summer session.

A spokesman for the justice ministry said ministers had approved the draft bill, and further negotiations were expected with the attorney general and defence ministry.

The need for a new bill arose after the Supreme Court in September struck down a law allowing ultra-Orthodox men to be exempted from military service up until 2023. The court gave parliament a year to pass a new law.

The issue is part of a decades-old debate over whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying at seminaries should perform mandatory military service like the rest of Israel's Jewish population.

In 2015, lawmakers passed legislation extending their exemption from duty, reversing a law passed the previous year that would have seen it expire.

Members of Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party implied they would object to the compromise approved Monday, which they said did not answer the needs of Israel's security.

Lieberman, who has pushed for compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox men, was expected to address the issue at a party meeting later Monday.

Netanyahu, 68, could soon face charges in at least two separate corruption affairs. He has been prime minister for a total of 12 years, from 1996-1999 and again since 2009.