JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s massive coalition government shrunk back to a slim majority Tuesday as the centrist Kadima party quit amid feuding over proposals to draft religious students into the military.
The defection ended one of the largest coalitions in Israel’s history, a little more than two months after Kadima rocked Israeli politics by joining Netanyahu’s hawkish government. That union rescued Netanyahu’s alliance, which had been on the verge of collapse over the draft issue, and Tuesday’s split revived the possibility of early elections.
Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief, had pledged to push through a new military draft law that would end exemptions for ultra-Orthodox seminary students. On Tuesday, he accused Netanyahu of pandering to smaller religious factions in the coalition by blocking a solution that would sharply accelerate recruitment of the religious students. That gave Kadima “no choice” but to abandon the alliance, Mofaz said.
Netanyahu “chose his own interests above the interests of the Israeli people,” Mofaz told reporters. “I was ready for historic compromises, but I had a red line, which I could not cross.”
The draft is one of the knottiest domestic issues in Israel, where a large part of the national identity is premised on universal service in what is called the “people’s army.” Citing that principle, the Israeli Supreme Court early this year struck down a law that exempted religious students, an exemption that has fueled resentment among Israel’s secular majority.
Coalition parties were engaged in heated arguments as an Aug. 1 deadline to replace the law approached, but an agreement looked less likely by the day. Last week, Netanyahu disbanded a committee he had tasked with drafting a new law.
He has said he is committed to expanding the draft but wants to do it more slowly to avoid sparking a culture war.
“I regret your decision to give up on an opportunity to make a historic change,” Netanyahu wrote in a letter to Mofaz, part of which was released by the prime minister’s office Tuesday. “The only way to implement this on the ground is gradually and without tearing Israeli society apart.”
Kadima’s decision to join the government in May gave the coalition 94 of 120 parliamentary seats and was deemed a political coup by Netanyahu, who was then facing threats of defection by religious and secular right-wing parties over the military draft law. The large majority raised some hopes for breakthroughs on other divisive topics, including peace with the Palestinians.
In his two months as vice prime minister, Mofaz pitched an interim peace plan, which he said he thought was workable because of the large coalition. The Palestinian issue has hardly featured on the Israeli agenda, however.
Kadima now returns to being the largest opposition party, one that had plummeting popularity before it joined the alliance.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, enjoys strong approval ratings, and his Likud party is expected to easily win the next elections, scheduled for late 2013. Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the coalition’s fate until then is likely to depend on the ultra-nationalist party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who backs an aggressive conscription law that would also draft Israeli Arabs.
“Netanyahu apparently proved that he’s not ready to go too far” on drafting ultra-Orthodox students, Diskin said.