Kadima’s Departure Leaves Netanyahu’s Coalition at Odds with Itself

Elections may be imminent as the debate over the draft--and whether the ultra-orthodox are exempt--leads to the end of Netanyahu's grand coalition

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Uriel Sinai / AFP / Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on July 8, 2012.

Well, that didn’t last long.  The newest and largest member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition voted to leave it on Tuesday, ankling the government not quite 10 weeks after joining.  Kadima, the center-right party that averted elections by joining Netanyahu’s coalition in May, voted overwhelmingly to return to opposition after Netanyahu chose to side with religious parties in the divisive question of a universal draft.

Kadima’s departure does not guarantee new elections.  Netanyahu’s remaining coalition members continue to account for a majority of the Knesset, as Israel’s legislature is known.  But it leaves him weaker and more vulnerable to the passions of the factions who remain — nationalists on one hand, and religious parties on the other, who live on opposite polls of the draft issue.  Israel’s high court has ruled that a new law must be in place by July 31, and analysts say hopes for a compromise are leaving with the centrist Kadima.

“It’s more than likely that he’s heading for early elections,” says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jersualem’s Hebrew University.   “Now that Kadima is gone, Netanyahu is being pulled by two sides, and whatever side he goes to he will lose the other side. So unless he can juggle this for an extended amount of time he’s unlikely to last.”

At issue is the question of requiring Israel’s most religiously observant Jews, the black-clad known as the ultra-Orthodox–or the Haredim–to serve in the military.   The ultra-Orthodox historically have been allowed by law to avoid the draft, enjoying exceptions that allow them to devote their lives to studying religious texts within the confines of their closed, almost hermetic society.

The fear, from their side, is that military service will expose their young men to a world of temptations – such as contact with single women — which the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle is specifically designed to keep at bay.  The matter is further muddied by the skepticism over, if not outright objection to, the very existence of the state of Israel by many ultra-Orthodox, who hold to the view that the state should not be established before the arrival of the messiah.

Most Israelis, however, strongly believe that religious Jews should do more to pull their weight, especially given the generous housing and welfare payments and other privileges (some say indulgences) such as state subsidies to religious schools, they enjoy at taxpayer expense.  Generous state support allows a majority of ultra-Orthodox men – who now head about 10% of Israeli households — to simply not work for wages, relying on welfare payments or income from wives to support families that often run to eight or more children.

In a society where the sometimes rude quest for advantage is often rooted in the fear of being taken advantage of – no one wants to be a frier, or sucker – the ultra-Orthodox issue came to a head this summer.   An ongoing “sucker’s protest” took up residence outside the prime minister’s residence, and some 20,000 turned out at a march in Tel Aviv a couple of weeks ago.

Kadima was intent on riding the wave of outrage.  After Israel’s supreme court ruled that a new law needed to address the draft, party chairman Shaul Mofaz made addressing draft equality a condition of joining Netanyahu’s coalition.  Netanyahu dutifully named a committee to formulate a new law, headed by a Kadima lawmaker deeply schooled on the issue. But the prime minister abruptly disbanded the committee after it produced recommendations that upset the ultra-Orthodox parties that are also members of the coalition, controlling 19 seats.  The largest warned of “chaos,” “anarchy” and that tens of thousands of the very religious would simply leave the country.

Somehow, that development channeled public ire on Mofaz, a sometimes lugubrious presence who had been viewed as an opportunist for joining the government in the first place (after polls showed Kadima would lose as many as half its seats if elections went forward).   “I paid a personal political price,” to join the coalition, Mofaz told party members in advance of Tuesday’s vote, “but this issue is fundamental, and there is no choice but to leave the coalition. Every concession will harm Kadima’s image.”

Indeed, leaving the government might be the bold stroke that defines the struggling party as the champion of Israel’s secular, centrist majority.  “Kadima is in a better position than they were three months ago, because they have an issue to campaign on,” says Hazan, the political scientist. “They were in free fall before.”   The potential upside may be even greater if Israelis take to the streets this summer in anywhere near the numbers they did last, when massive social protests over economic inequities appeared to recast domestic politics.  This year has brought nothing on a similar scale, in part because authorities have refused to allow the tent cities that catalyzed last summer’s movement. But the self-immolation Saturday of a protest stalwart, who left behind a note blaming the government for his bankruptcy and other troubles, has galvanized attention and brought a new dynamic.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is left with a coalition both more right wing and more fractious than before Kadima joined.  The largest remaining partner, after Netanyahu’s Likud party, would be the nationalist faction led by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose followers are, if anything, even more hostile to the ultra-Orthodox.  After campaigning on a slogan of “my word is my word,” Lieberman is under intense pressure to deliver a law equalizing the burden of citizenship.

To that end, he will demand a vote on Wednesday on a bill that would require everyone in Israel to serve at age 18.  “I hope everyone with a brain supports the bill,” Lieberman said. “I call upon Likud and Kadima to pass the simplest bill possible without shticks and tricks. All 18-year-olds must serve in the army or national service, period.”