(JTA) – For the second time in just two months, the Israeli political universe was upended when Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima Party voted to quit Israel’s governing coalition.
Kadima’s departure, the result of a breakdown in negotiations over reforming Israel’s military draft law to include haredi Orthodox Jews, shatters the 94-seat super-majority that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu controlled in the 120-seat Knesset.
It also raises questions for the future of Kadima, Israel’s draft and the timing of new elections.
While the loss of Kadima’s 28 seats still leaves Netanyahu’s coalition with the majority it needs to govern, Netanyahu is now seen as more likely to move up Israel’s next elections, which now are scheduled for the fall of 2013.
Netanyahu had been set to dissolve the Knesset and call for new elections nine weeks ago when Mofaz stunned the Israeli political establishment by bringing Kadima, Israel’s main opposition party, into the governing coalition. The move was seen as a gambit by Mofaz, who had won Kadima’s leadership several weeks earlier, to stave off elections in which Kadima was set to lose significant ground.
For Netanyahu, the coalition deal was a way both to hobble the opposition and give him more leeway in formulating a new military draft law. In February, Israel’s Supreme Court struck down the current draft regulation, called the Tal Law, which excuses haredi Orthodox from universal mandatory military service for Israeli Jews. The court ordered that a new law be enacted by Aug. 1 or else all Israeli Jews would be subject to the draft.
Netanyahu’s other coalition partners include haredi Orthodox parties that oppose drafting large numbers of haredi men or subjecting them to national service.
The debate over the new draft law has roiled Israel in recent weeks. Many Israelis long have resented what they see as the free ride given to haredi Israelis, who are not required to serve in the army but are still eligible for state welfare benefits.
In the end it was Kadima that quit the government in protest over proposed reforms that it said did not go far enough.
At a news conference Tuesday announcing Kadima’s decision to leave the government, Mofaz said he had rejected Netanyahu’s proposal of deferring national service until age 26; Kadima wanted the draft deferral to end at age 22.
“It is with deep regret that I say that there is no choice but to decide to leave the government,” Mofaz told a closed-door meeting of Kadima on Tuesday, according to the Israeli news site Ynet. Only three of Kadima’s 28 members voted in favor of staying in the coalition.
"Netanyahu has chosen to side with the draft-dodgers," Mofaz told reporters after the meeting, according to Haaretz. "I have reached an understanding that the prime minister has not left us a choice and so we have responded."
In a letter to Mofaz from Netanyahu’s office, the prime minister responded, "I gave you a proposal that would have led to the conscription of ultra-Orthodox and Arabs from the age of 18. I explained to you that the only way to implement this on the ground is gradually and without tearing Israeli society apart, especially at a time when the State of Israel is facing many significant challenges. I will continue to work toward the responsible solution that Israeli society expects."
With just two weeks to go before the Tal Law expires, it’s not clear where Kadima’s departure leaves the future of Israel’s military draft.
What seems certain is that Kadima has been weakened by the episode. Two months ago, polls showed Kadima stood to lose two-thirds of its Knesset seats in new elections. Government opponents harshly criticized Mofaz when he then decided to hitch his centrist party to Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party.
"Unfortunately, everything I warned about two months ago and everything I expected to happen, happened," said Haim Ramon, a Knesset member who quit Kadima when Mofaz joined the government. "Netanyahu’s allies are the haredim and the settlers. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding himself and the public. This move has brought on Kadima’s demise and Shaul Mofaz is the one accountable," Ramon said, according to Ynet.
If new elections were held today, Kadima likely would implode, with the biggest chunk of its seats going to Likud (Kadima originally was created as an offshoot of Likud) and others to a new centrist party, Yesh Atid, or to left-wing parties.
On Tuesday, Yesh Atid’s chairman, Yair Lapid, called for Netanyahu to declare new elections immediately.
"We are ready for elections, and it’s time to rid Israel of this bad government," Lapid said, according to Ynet.
For now, analysts are predicting that Netanyahu will call for new elections in early 2013.