Kadima leaves Israeli grand coalition over national service ‘Tal Law’ proposal

Well, that was short-lived.

After just 70 days in what was meant to be the broadest coalition in a generation of Israeli politics, Shaul Mofaz, the leader of the centrist Kadima party, announced that Kadima will leave Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition over the terms of a controversial law designed to address the exemption of ultra-orthodox haredim Jews — yeshiva students of traditional religious texts — from mandatory service in the Israel Defense Force.

Netanyahu will continue as prime minster, albeit with his original 66-member coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament, with an August 1 deadline for enacting a new law.

Under the latest proposal, half of haredim between age 18 and 23 would be drafted into the IDF and another half would be drafted into national service between age 23 and 26.  It is only the latest attempt — the so-called “Tal Law” first emerged in 2002 and was extended in 2007, and has been controversial throughout its history.  Israel’s High Court of Justice, however, ruled that the Tal Law is unconstitutional and ordered the government to enact a replacement to the current law by August 1.

Mofaz, who had argued for a compulsory draft of everyone up to age 23, complained that the latest proposal did not go far enough:

Mofaz said that the proposal violates the ruling of the High Court on the issue, the principle of equal sharing of the burden of military service, is not proportional and does not meet the ultimate test of effectively resolving the issue.

Mofaz also noted that the proposal also did not include all draftable persons, and therefore, in reality, would merely maintain the unmanageable status quo.

The decision reinforces the difficult in crafting an alternative to the Tal Law in a manner that satisfies everyone in Netanyahu’s coalition. In addition to his own Likud Party and a small breakaway faction of Labor Party MKs loyal to defense minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak, the coalition contains several ultra-orthodox parties, including Shas, who are the most pro-exemption parties in the Knesset.  But it also contains the nationalist and secular Yisrael Beiteinu, which is introducing to the Knesset a bill that would require all 18-year-olds to serve (although Netanyahu has allowed Yisrael Beiteinu to introduce the bill, the remaining members of his coalition will defeat it).

Earlier this month, Netanyahu dissolved the Plesner Committee, which had been tasked with coming up with an alternative to the Tal Law, after committee members representing both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu resigned from the committee in protest.

The question of whether to exempt haredimfrom IDF service — or whether to fashion some alternative form of civil service on the basis of equal burden-sharing — is an emotional issue in a country where security threats remain a top concern of all Israelis.

Mofaz, who was elected as Kadima’s leader only in March, after promising not to join a Netanyahu government, will now be forced to look toward early elections having accomplished nothing for his 70-day experiment.  The Mofaz-led Kadima is faring even worse in the polls than ever, projected to lose the majority of its 28 seats.

Former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who resigned from the Knesset after she lost the Kadima leadership race and who opposed Kadima joining Netanyahu’s coalition, is already pointing fingers at Mofaz, and looks somewhat vindicated today.  With former Kadima prime minister Ehud Olmert cleared of bribery and corruption charges earlier this month, his potential return to Israeli politics could also transform the political landscape, according to a Jerusalem Post poll taken last week. In addition, former news anchor Yair Lapid and his new political movement shows signs of continued support.  Together, a combined effort from Olmert and Lapid could even overtake Netanyahu’s Likud Party, polls have shown.  Olmert has — so far — denied plans to return to politics.

Elections must, in any event, be held before October 2013.  Lapid and Labor Party leader Shelly Yechimovich have each called on Netanyahu to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections.  Both Lapid and Yechimovich have both criticized Netanyahu for drafting a compromise that is too favorable to the haredim.

If nothing else, I think this answers Jeffrey Goldberg’s question as to the reason for the coalition in the first place (and not, say, a push for peace with the Palestinians or a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear capabilities).  But despite the deep divisions over the Tal Law replacement, it seems unlikely that the next election will be won or lost on the issue.

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