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Dispute Over Conscription for Ultra-Orthodox Jews Presents New Threat to Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing his most challenging political threat since the start of the Gaza war because of a disagreement among members of his coalition about whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should retain their longstanding exemption from military service.

An unwieldy right-wing alliance of secular and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, the coalition’s members are divided about whether the state should continue to allow young ultra-Orthodox men to study at religious seminaries instead of serving in the military, as most other Jewish Israelis do. If the government abolishes the exemption, it risks a walkout from the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers; if it lets the exemption stand, the secular members could withdraw. Either way, the coalition could collapse.

The situation poses the gravest challenge to Mr. Netanyahu’s grip on power since Hamas raided Israel on Oct. 7, prompting Israel to invade Hamas’s stronghold in the Gaza Strip. Criticized by many Israelis for presiding over the October disaster, Mr. Netanyahu is trailing in the polls and faces growing calls to resign. But until now, there were few obvious ways in which his coalition might collapse.

The end of the coalition would most likely lead to new elections, and polling suggests that Mr. Netanyahu would not win.

A new Israeli government led by centrists is unlikely to take a markedly different approach to the war in Gaza, but it may be more open to allowing the Palestinian leadership in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to play a bigger role in Gaza after the war. That arrangement could create a more conducive environment for Israel to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, which had edged closer to sealing diplomatic ties with Israel before the war broke out.

The ultra-Orthodox have been exempt from military service since the founding of Israel in 1948, but as the numbers of the ultra-Orthodox have grown — and especially in the months since the war began — so have resentment and anger over these privileges.

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