Israeli government loses main coalition partner

Chairman Shaul Mofaz, right, announced Tuesday that his Kadima party would withdray from Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.

Story highlights

  • Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz says the party is leaving the coalition that controls Knesset
  • The issue: Expiring law that exempts ultra-Orthodox men from being drafted
  • Kadima says ultra-Orthodox should share the burden of service like other Israelis
  • Kadima departure leaves PM Netanyahu's ruling coalition weakened

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday lost its main coalition partner, the centrist political faction Kadima.

Speaking at a press conference near Tel Aviv, Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz announced his party's departure from the coalition, over failed attempts to agree on an alternative to the law that exempts ultra-Orthodox men from serving in the Israeli army.

"With great regret I must say that there is no alternative but to retire from this government," said Mofaz. "This issue is fundamentally important to us. I was determined to reach an understanding with Netanyahu, but we simply cannot carry on."

Mofaz's decision was approved by his fellow Kadima members of the Knesset, with 25 in favor and three opposed.

"Tonight, Kadima has decided to withdraw from the national unity government," Mofaz told reporters after the meeting. "Netanyahu's proposal to draft ultra-Orthodox men at the age of 26 does not stand at any moral criteria. There will be no social justice without equal sharing of the burden. We were prepared to make historical compromises, but there cannot be a law without a duty of service and there can be no law without personal responsibility."

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Kadima's departure from the government comes just 70 days after it joined forces with Netanyahu, providing him with an unprecedented power bloc of 94 out of 120 Knesset members. If all members of Kadima follow Mofaz's decision, Netanyahu's coalition will drop to a mere 66 members.

The law exempting most yeshiva students from army service is due to expire at the end of this month under a decision by Israel's high court. Yeshivas are schools devoted to the study of religious texts like the Talmud.

Mofaz and Kadima have been pushing for an assertive approach that would force most of the ultra-Orthodox students to serve their country in the military or in civil service. Netanyahu sought to solve the problem through consensus with ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, but Kadima argued it would pull out of the government if its demands that all Israelis serve equally were not met.

Netanyahu's Likud party has traditionally aligned with the ultra-Orthodox factions as coalition partners. They have repeatedly threatened to pull their support of Netanyahu should he adopt Kadima's position.

The Iranian-born Mofaz, who is a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, became chairman of Kadima in March when he defeated Tzipi Livni in a party leadership contest, winning 62% of the votes to Livni's 38%.

Thousands of reservists and secular citizens have rallied across Israel in recent weeks to demand service for all and an equal distribution of the burden.

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On Monday, thousands of the ultra-Orthodox community members gathered on the streets of Jerusalem to protest against the calls to draft their young men into the Israeli Army. Marchers held banners reading, "We shall not join the army of the enemy" and "We will never yield to the regime's decree." Some of the children were handcuffed to each other.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday, following Kadima's announcement, that in the absence of an alternative law, drafting of ultra-Orthodox men will be extended starting next month.

"During the next three months the Defense Ministry will formulate a temporary legislative proposal to be submitted to the government and later to the Knesset according to the just demand for equality in the burden. This will stay in effect until permanent legislation provides a full response to the issue".