© Ammar Awad/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) holds a joint news conference with Shaul Mofaz, head of the Kadima party at parliament in Jerusalem May 8, 2012.
Israel's high-flying governing coalition crashed to Earth on Tuesday barely two months after getting off the ground, unable to agree on a formula for conscripting the country's ultra-Orthodox into the military. With the resignation of Shaul Mofaz as Deputy Prime Minister and the loss of his Kadima party's 28 parliamentary seats, out went the chances for formative changes in the country and the region.
When Mr. Mofaz, a former defence minister and military chief of staff, took the unexpected step of joining the right-of-centre coalition, giving the government of Benjamin Netanyahu 94 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, the Prime Minister promised three things in return: The wholesale exemptions from conscription given to the Haredim would be abolished; the electoral process would be reformed to make it harder for small parties to be elected; and there would be a new effort to advance a peace agreement with Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.
With such numerical superiority, the way seemed clear for the government to pass such measures without worrying about opposition from smaller right-wing and religious parties inside the coalition.
The much-heralded unity government was all for naught, it seems.
"Netanyahu has chosen to side with the draft-dodgers," Mr. Mofaz said Tuesday, announcing Kadima's withdrawal from the government.
Earlier in the day, the Prime Minister had presented his coalition partner with draft legislation intended to bridge the gap between the views of Kadima and those of the rest of the coalition. Mr. Mofaz wasn't buying it.
"There is an attempt here to bypass principles and confuse the public," Mr. Mofaz responded. "It doesn't fool me and it doesn't fool the public."
The Kadima leader was referring to widespread public demand that compulsory military service be shared equally by all sectors of society including the religious community, a position supported by Israel's High Court of Justice that recently ruled that any system that had one sector carrying a disproportionate share of the load would be unconstitutional.
The Prime Minister's compromise fell far short of that goal, said Mr. Mofaz.
Mr. Netanyahu's scheme relies heavily on incentives for Orthodox men to enlist at an early age, rather than on a completely compulsory draft.
"I regret your decision to give up on an opportunity to make an historic change," the Prime Minister wrote in a letter Tuesday to Mr. Mofaz.
"The only way to implement this on the ground is gradually and without tearing Israeli society apart," Mr. Netanyahu concluded.
The current law allowing large-scale religious exemption expires at the end of July.
Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli journalist, said the fate of the unity government was sealed two weeks ago when the Prime Minister dismissed, the day before it was to report its findings, a special committee that had been tasked with drafting a new military recruitment law.
With this dismissal, Mr. Barnea wrote, Mr. Netanyahu "made his choice. He chose the Haredim over Kadima."
"Apparently he prefers to steer clear of this particular issue, just so the Haredi factions will not accuse him of breaking his alliance with them. Instead of shaping the country's future, the PM is securing his own," Mr. Barnea said.
"Netanyahu is looking beyond today's situation, to the next coalition - and looking to the coalition after that," said columnist Susan Hattis Rolef, a long-time Knesset researcher and writer on parliamentary practice.
The Prime Minister recognizes the growing numbers in the Haredim community and its growing clout, she said. "Being allied with them is more important than an alliance with Kadima."
As for Mr. Mofaz himself? "He's finished," she said. "His main purpose in entering the coalition was to stave off the enormous defeat Kadima was about to suffer" in early elections Mr. Netanyahu had announced for this autumn.
"He gambled on having a good showing in office, and he lost."
The country now may be back on course for elections later this year - almost a certainty, some think, with the revived prospect of former prime minister Ehud Olmert waiting in the wings to challenge Mr. Netanyahu.