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Could Israeli court decision on subsidies for ultra-Orthodox topple Netanyahu?

Israeli police officers scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during a protest in Jerusalem.
Israeli police scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during a protest against possible changes to the military draft laws outside a military recruitment office in Jerusalem, this month.
(Leo Correa / Associated Press)
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Israel’s Supreme Court ruling curtailing subsidies for ultra-Orthodox men has rattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition and raised questions about its viability as the country presses on with the war in Gaza.

Netanyahu has until Monday to present the court with a plan to dismantle what the justices called a system that privileges the ultra-Orthodox at the expense of the secular Jewish public.

If that plan alienates the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers on whose support he depends, his coalition could disintegrate and the country could be forced to hold new elections.

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Here’s a breakdown of the decision and what it might spell for the future of Israeli politics.

What does the decision say?

Most Jewish men are required to serve nearly three years in the military, followed by years of reserve duty. Jewish women serve two mandatory years.

But the politically powerful ultra-Orthodox, who make up roughly 13% of Israeli society, have traditionally received exemptions while studying full time in religious seminaries, or yeshivas.

Some ultra-Orthodox Jews are seeking secular Israeli jobs and lifestyles, but they face growing resentment over religious school subsidies and other benefits.

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This years-old system has bred widespread resentment among the broader public — a feeling that has deepened during nearly six months of war. More than 500 soldiers have been killed in fighting, and tens of thousands of Israelis have had their careers, studies and family lives disrupted because of reserve duty.

The Supreme Court ruled that the current system is discriminatory and gave the government until Monday to present a new plan, and until June 30 to pass one. Netanyahu asked the court Thursday for a 30-day extension.

The court did not immediately respond to his request. But it issued an interim order barring the government from funding the monthly subsidies for religious students of enlistment age who have not received a deferral from the army. Those funds will be frozen starting Monday.

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While the loss of state subsidies is certainly a blow, it appears the yeshivas can continue to function. Israel’s Channel 12 reported Friday that the state provides only 7.5% of all funding for the institutions. Netanyahu’s coalition could also search for discretionary funds to cover the gaps.

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How is the decision being received?

Many Israelis are celebrating the court’s decision, believing it spells an end to a system that takes for granted their military service and economic contributions while advantaging the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, as they are called in Israel.

The religious exemption dates back to Israel’s founding, a compromise that the country’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, made with ultra-Orthodox leaders to allow some 400 yeshiva students to devote themselves fully to Torah study. But what was once a fringe Haredi population has grown precipitously, making the exemption a hugely divisive issue to Israeli society.

Many ultra-Orthodox continue to receive government stipends into adulthood, eschewing getting paying jobs to instead continue full-time religious studies. Economists have long warned the system is unsustainable.

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“The next government will have to hold a long overdue conversation about the future of the Haredi relationship to the state,” commentator Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Israel’s left-leaning daily Haaretz.

“Now, the Haredim will have no choice but to take part in it. It won’t be just about the national service of its young men, it will also have to address fundamental questions about education and employment,” he said.

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Ultra-Orthodox leaders have reacted angrily.

Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, called the court’s decision “unprecedented bullying of Torah students in the Jewish state.”

The ultra-Orthodox say that integrating into the army will threaten their generations-old way of life, and that their devout lifestyle and dedication to upholding the Jewish commandments protect Israel as much as a strong army. Although a small number have opted to serve in the military, many have vowed to fight any attempt to compel Haredim to do so.

“Without the Torah, we have no right to exist,” said Yitzchak Goldknopf, leader of the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism. “We will fight in every way over the right of every Jew to study Torah, and we won’t compromise on that.

Why does it threaten Netanyahu?

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is known as a master political survivor. But his room to maneuver is limited. He could lose the support of some in his fragile national unity government if he tries to preserve the exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox.

Two former generals in his fragile war Cabinet have insisted that all sectors of Israeli society contribute equally. One, Benny Gantz, has threatened to quit — a step that would destabilize a key decision-making body at a sensitive time.

If the powerful bloc of ultra-Orthodox parties — longtime partners of Netanyahu — decides to leave the government, the coalition would almost certainly collapse. The country could be forced into new elections, with Netanyahu trailing significantly in the polls amid the war.

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Frankel writes for the Associated Press.

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