Netanyahu: The law applies everywhere — the Golan, West Bank and Ayalon Highway

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday reiterated his condemnation of settler rampages in Palestinian towns following a deadly terror shooting in the West Bank last week, while again lumping the rioting together with other recent unrest and not issuing a standalone rebuke.

“We are a country of laws and this applies everywhere — in the Golan, Judea and Samaria and the Ayalon,” Netanyahu told the Knesset, using the West Bank’s biblical name and also referring to Druze rioting over a wind farm project in the Golan Heights and to anti-government protesters blocking Tel Aviv’s main highway during months of demonstrations against the judicial overhaul plan.

Netanyahu last week similarly paired the settler violence with the clashes between Druze and police, denouncing both and stressing Israel is a “country governed by laws.”

The settler riots over the past week have drawn international censures and also been condemned by security chiefs, who issued a joint statement — after another attack over the weekend — denouncing the violence as “nationalist terror.” That denunciation, in turn, has drawn fire from Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, one of whom likened the heads of the military, Shin Bet and police to the mutinous Russian mercenary group Wagner.

Minister Orit Strock later apologized for the comparison after it was roundly condemned, with Netanyahu saying “there is no place” for such a remark while also ordering an investigation into “allegations of the use of excessive force by the security forces” against settlers in the West Bank.

Opposition leaders have urged Netanyahu to fire Strock over the comment, which he has not done.

Border Police officers stop Israeli settlers from entering the Palestinian West Bank town of Turmus Ayya,, June 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Netanyahu’s latest denunciation came as he sparred with opposition lawmakers over his government’s record during a so-called 40 signatures debate in the Knesset, after the opposition gathered enough support to force his appearance in the potentially monthly discussion.

“When I was prime minister, there were 12 killed from terror. Under you, during the same period, there have been 28. Since you entered the post [in late December], 1,700 rockets have been fired toward Israel from Gaza,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said in response to Netanyahu, who has repeatedly boasted that the current government has “changed the equation” by stepping up its response to terror.

“On the economy, you’ve also made a change for the worse. You can’t be trusted, not with our children’s education, not with security and definitely not with your false facts,” he added.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speks at the Knesset on June 26, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the plenum session, Netanyahu also addressed his government’s plans to focus on bringing ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis into the workforce rather than conscript them to the military, in one of his first public comments on enlistment since retaking office in late December.

“When you get to the optimal size” for the Israel Defense Forces, Netanyahu said from the Knesset rostrum, “you stop enlistment.” Rather, he said, the question is what to do with the “extra people.”

Netanyahu said his government would answer that question by bringing a bill to encourage Haredi and Arab integration into the workforce, in line with a cabinet decision made on Sunday.

He also said the coalition would improve benefits for those who do serve and clear the path toward National Service, seen as a religiously appropriate or less political alternative to military service.

His remarks on the issue came a day after the government approved enabling to continue exempting ultra-Orthodox Israelis from the draft, days before the current exemption framework expires.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In 2017, the High Court of Justice invalidated the current conscription law, which gives sweeping exemptions to full-time religious scholars. It has given the government a series of extended deadlines by which to legislate a new enlistment law, and has allowed the Defense Ministry to rely upon the current, struck-down law until a replacement is passed. The government’s 15th, and current, extension to legislate a solution is due to expire at the end of July. However, the government’s underlying, invalidated law has a provision forcing its expiration — and the government’s timeline — a month sooner, on June 30.

Because the underlying law was struck down, the coalition could not simply renew it, and the government therefore passed its Sunday decision as a stop-gap measure, to give the military legal cover to refrain from drafting ultra-Orthodox youth until a permanent solution can be legislated.

A remnant from agreements made in the early days of the state, the ultra-Orthodox community has long skirted mandatory military conscription by enrolling in full-time religious study until past the enlistment age threshold. The issue came to a head a decade ago, alongside a broader discussion about sharing the country’s economic and service burden, much of which falls on the mainstream middle class.

In addition to the law struck down by the High Court in 2017, a previous version of the enlistment exemption law was knocked down in 2012.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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