Centrists abandon Benjamin Netanyahu to leave Israeli government in limbo

Kadima walks out on coalition over Likud's refusal to draft ultra-orthodox Jews into military

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The Independent Online

The broadened coalition formed by Benjamin Netanyahu just ten weeks ago ended yesterday when the centrist Kadima party walked out in protest over the terms of drafting ultra-orthodox men into military service.

Kadima's Knesset members voted 25-3 in favour of their leader Shaul Mofaz's decision to pull the party out of the government and leave his post of Deputy Prime Minister after the breakdown of negotiations aimed at resolving one of the most contentious internal issues in Israeli politics.

The move reflects a clear preference by the Israeli Prime Minister and leader of the right wing Likud party for his ultra-orthodox allies over the secular, more moderate partners in Kadima.

Kadima had been pressing for legislation to pave the way for around 6,000 young ultra-orthodox men to be drafted into the Israel Defence Forces or civilian service per year. It rejected a much more gradual and limited proposal by Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Mofaz, who made ending the wholesale exemption for those pursuing religious studies a central goal of his entry to the coalition, opened a meeting of his Knesset faction by telling MPs: "With great distress, I say there's no escape but to take the decision to leave the coalition. It was not easy to enter the government ……but there's no escape from the need to break away." The immediate effect of the collapse of the largest ever coalition in Israel's history — as well as one of the most short-lived — will be to leave the Netanyahu government with a much narrower but still stable majority of 66 out of the Knesset's 120 seats.

Kadima's departure, however, could well hasten elections, probably to January or February 2013, not least because of the difficulties of passing a budget with a smaller government majority in what would anyway be an election year. But the move is unlikely to affect the government's right wing tenor towards the occupation, Israeli settlements, and the dormant peace process with the Palestinians, which remained largely unchanged despite hopes by the US and Israel's other allies that it would be softened while Mr Netanyahu enjoyed a broader coalition.

This was illustrated yesterday when the military-appointed Board of Education covering the West Bank approved a far-reaching recommendation, heavily backed by Mr Netanyahu's Likud Education and Finance Ministers, to make the college in the settlement of Ariel into a fully-fledged university despite the strong opposition of many academic leaders in Israel itself.

The effect on the electoral fortunes of the now divorced coalition partners is less clear. Mr Netanyahu remains a consistently popular Prime Minister, though he now risks losing at least some votes among a body of secular electors – including on the centre and right – for whom drafting the ultra-orthodox is a highly salient issue.

But the future for Kadima is likely to be much more dire. While Mr Mofaz could pick up a handful of seats as a champion of drafting the ultra-orthodox, the polls suggested the party was in meltdown before it joined the coalition and there was widespread speculation yesterday that it could split or even disintegrate.

The exemptions for the ultra-orthodox from military service – and the benefits for those not working – date from the foundation of the state in 1948 when a few hundred were left to pursue their biblical studies to rebuild religious scholarship that had been wiped out by the Holocaust. But these numbers have now grown to around 60,000.

Opposing changes to the system, Rabbi Obadia Yosef, the hugely influential spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox party Shas, whose chairman Eli Yishai is Mr Netanyahu's Interior Minister, said on Saturday that without students at yeshivas – religious colleges – "the world would be destroyed". While acknowledging that the IDF "guards us", he added that "only the Torah" could protect Israel "from evil".