Netanyahu Coalition Loses Major Ally in Draft Law Dispute

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday in a letter to Mofaz that was e-mailed to journalists, “I regret your decision to give up on an opportunity to make a historic change.” Photographer: Ronen Zvulun-Pool/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner quit in a dispute over proposed changes to a law on draft deferments for ultra-Orthodox Jews, leaving the government more dependent on religious and nationalist parties.

Kadima voted to pull out about two months after party leader Shaul Mofaz struck a surprise deal with Netanyahu to create the biggest government alliance in 20 years, with 94 seats in the 120-member Knesset in Jerusalem. Netanyahu will retain a majority in parliament without Kadima’s 28 seats.

“I regret your decision to give up on an opportunity to make a historic change,” Netanyahu said yesterday in a letter to Mofaz that was e-mailed to journalists.

Kadima joined Netanyahu’s coalition on May 8 after the prime minister promised to change government policy that lets ultra-Orthodox men defer mandatory military service as long as they are engaged in full-time religious studies. Broadening the coalition nullified plans to hold early national elections in September, which Netanyahu had called amid strains among his allied parties.

The coalition between Likud and Kadima was billed as a super-majority that would enable Netanyahu to pass legislation that previously proved problematic, including the elimination or reduction of draft deferments. It also was suggested that, freed from the demands of religious and nationalist parties in the coalition, Netanyahu might find it easier to make compromises with the Palestinians that could lead to a breakthrough in the peace process.

‘Necessary Seats’

“Netanyahu has the necessary seats to survive this and it may be in the interest of every party in the coalition to keep the government going until its expiration date in autumn next year,” said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “Both Netanyahu and Mofaz come out of this looking bad. They had an opportunity to make a historic law and made too many tactical mistakes.”

After a government panel appointed by Netanyahu failed to agree on a law that would limit deferments for ultra-Orthodox men, he entered into direct negotiations with Mofaz. The Kadima leader said he couldn’t agree to granting the ultra-Orthodox an initial draft deferment up to the age of 26 that would be lowered only later.

“I was ready to make historic compromises, but there were also red lines I wasn’t willing to cross,” Mofaz said, speaking at a televised press conference.

‘Only Way’

Netanyahu said that the “only way to implement this on the ground is gradually and without tearing Israeli society apart.”

United Torah Judaism, a religious party in the coalition, has demanded that the draft exemption be maintained and another religious coalition member, Shas, has also opposed changes.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said today that his Yisrael Beitanu party, now the second-biggest faction in the coalition with 15 seats, has no intention of resigning even though Netanyahu opposes its position that both ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs should be drafted at 18. “We are definitely not leaving the government,” Liberman told Army Radio, adding that early elections are now a possibility.

Working out a national service policy for the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim as they are called in Israel, would enable more of them to enter into the workforce. The ultra-Orthodox may be subject to the draft if they leave seminary studies to look for work.

About 45 percent of ultra-Orthodox men work, compared with about 80 percent of other Jewish males in Israel, according to the Bank of Israel. While the ultra-Orthodox make up about 8 percent to 10 percent of the population, they will represent 17 percent of working-age Israelis in 20 years because of their high birthrate, according to the bank.

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