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Cracks appear in new Israeli set-up over ultra-Orthodox military service


The first rifts in Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's expanded coalition have emerged just a day after its creation with religious and secular parties exchanging threats over draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the government to halt the exemptions, which have allowed tens of thousands of ultra-religious men to skip compulsory military service and instead spend their days in subsidised religious studies.

The exemptions have infuriated secular Israelis, who say it is unfair that they have to risk their lives in the military while the religious study.

The dispute was a key factor in Mr Netanyahu's surprising decision to shore up his coalition by bringing in the Kadima Party.

MP Yitzhak Cohen of the religious Shas Party said that "it's an illusion" to expect a court decision would force seminary students to serve in the military. Moshe Gafni, a leader in the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, warned of a brewing "cultural civil war."

But Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebrman, leader of the fiercely secular Yisrael Beitenu Party, said there could be no "foot dragging" on the matter. Mr Lieberman's plan to push legislation ending the exemptions helped spark the coalition crisis that resulted in the deal.

Unable to bridge the differences over the draft exemptions, Mr Netanyahu on Monday said he would call early parliamentary elections in September, more than a year ahead of schedule. But in a surprising turnaround, he subsequently reached a deal with Kadima overnight that made elections unnecessary.

He now presides over a majority of 94 members in the 120-seat parliament, meaning that neither the ultra-Orthodox nor Yisrael Beitenu can rob him of his majority any more. Both factions, each with about 15 MPs, remain in the coalition.

The draft is just one of several contentious issues looming for the government. Another is the matter of Jewish settlements in territories Palestinians claim for their future state.

The Supreme Court has ordered the government to dismantle a pair of settlement outposts found to be built illegally in the West Bank. Hard-liners in the coalition oppose any move against the settlers, and still hope to thwart the planned demolitions by passing new legislation that would legalise the outposts.