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Israeli religious party denies coalition crisis
Israeli religious party says military exemptions ruling won't threaten ruling coalition
By The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) ' Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's top religious partner said Wednesday that Israel's ruling coalition would not be shaken by the Supreme Court's annulment of a contentious law allowing ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to avoid military service.

The military exemptions are resented by Israel's secular majority and have been a major source of conflict between the two communities. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court overturned the so-called Tal Law, saying that it failed to encourage more ultra-Orthodox to perform compulsory military service or alternative community service.

Because provisions for the exemptions weren't enforced, the percentage of ultra-Orthodox who did not serve in the military grew rather than shrank in the decade since the law was passed. The law, the court ruled, "did not meet expectations, nor did it lead to the required changes ... concerning an equal sharing of the burden."

The court's decision set off speculation the two ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu's coalition might pull out and bring down the government, possibly leading to the formation of more moderate government or new elections.

But the larger of the two parties, the Shas, dismissed that scenario on Wednesday.

Shas Party 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 could ensue from Tuesday's court ruling, 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."

"From my experience, the ultra-Orthodox community will not accept even short-term enlistment," he said, adding he did not envision all seminary students performing community service as an alternative, "but let's see what will happen."

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Shas leader Eli Yishai later Wednesday to discuss the ruling, he said.

According to activists in the ultra-Orthodox community, tens of thousands of religious men are currently exempt from Israel's compulsory draft. Israel's two biggest newspapers, Yediot Ahronot and Maariv, reported that more than 62,000 were exempted in 2010.

The Tal Law has emerged as a significant challenge to Netanyahu in recent months. It had already been extended once for five years and was due to expire again in August. The prime minister originally had hoped to extend it again, but faced stiff opposition from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and others in his coalition.

Lieberman told Army Radio on Wednesday that the court ruling "helps the coalition understand it finally has to take decisions rather than waffle."

Netanyahu said in a statement Tuesday that his government would "formulate a new law that will lead to a more just change in the burden of all sectors of Israeli society."

The prime minister is likely eager to avoid a coalition crisis at this time, when his primary interest is containing Iran's nuclear program. Israel, like the West, rejects Tehran's claims that it is developing nuclear energy, not bombs.

An impending shift in the court could also ease things for the ultra-Orthodox. Incoming Chief Justice Asher Grunis said in a minority opinion Tuesday that the court shouldn't intervene on the law.

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