RUTH POLLARD July 19, 2012
A contentious split ... Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz. Photo: AP
JERUSALEM: Israel's governing coalition has split over the thorny issue of drafting ultra-orthodox Jews into its defence force, but the fracture also signals a shift back to the right for the Netanyahu government and places the two-state solution even further out of reach.
The split, prompted by the decision of the centre-right Kadima Party to break away from the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition just 70 days after joining it, leaves the government with a majority of 66 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
It also leaves it vulnerable to the demands of its right-wing coalition partners, led by the Interior Minister Eli Yishai's Shas Party and the Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beytenu Party.
''Bibi [Netanyahu] chose the Haredim and the extreme right wing,'' Kadima's leader, Shaul Mofaz, is quoted as saying on the front page of Yedioth Ahronoth. Ma'ariv writes: ''Netanyahu chose to stand by the draft-dodgers and not by those carrying the stretcher.''
The Tal Law, one of the most contentious issues in Israeli domestic politics, exempts thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews from compulsory military service and was declared unconstitutional by the High Court in February.
It is due to expire on August 1 and Mr Mofaz said the passage of a new draft law to remove the exemption was one of his main aims when he joined Mr Netanyahu's coalition on May 8.
''The draft is part of the Israeli public's DNA,'' he said.
But after weeks of intense negotiations it became clear on Tuesday that Mr Mofaz would never realise that goal.
Israelis are required to serve three years in the military after finishing high school and can be called up for subsequent reserve duty. According to Mr Mofaz, the Prime Minister offered a bill in which only half of all ultra-orthodox or Haredi men would have to enlist, between ages 18 and 23, and the other half could delay their service until ages 23 to 26.
Mr Mofaz, who wanted the government to implement the recommendations of the Plesner commission that called for universal military or community service for all, including Arab citizens of Israel, said Mr Netanyahu's offer only ''paid lip service'' to the concept of equal service.
The Israeli media were scathing of both parties.
''The connection between Netanyahu and Mofaz was clearly a marriage of convenience from the start: Mofaz saw joining the coalition as an escape hatch that would temporarily shield him from the voter's verdict; Netanyahu wanted to prove that he is the boss of everyone, no opponents, no competition,'' wrote Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth.
The verdict: both men were wrong.
The Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said the ministry would draft temporary guidelines for the conscription of Haredi men, and ask the court to delay the requirement for universal service until some new legislation was ready.
But analysts cast doubt on whether ultra-orthodox Jews would ever be required to serve in the military.
''There will be no equal draft, the people's army will continue being eroded, the economy will continue to suffer,'' the commentator Ofer Shelah wrote in Ma'ariv.
With the departure of Kadima from the coalition, the Netanyahu government would move further to the right and accelerate settlement expansion in the West Bank, the public opinion analyst and academic Dahlia Scheindlin predicted.
''It is openly expressing its commitment to total control of the West Bank by allowing the centrist party that was committed to the two-state solution to leave in favour of the more extreme right-wing parties and Haredi parties,'' she said.
The decision to upgrade the status of Ariel College to a university, the first university established by Israel in a settlement in the West Bank, was a clear signal that the expansion of settlements, which are considered illegal under international law, would continue unabated, Ms Scheindlin said.
''We can expect to see more policy that is either implicitly or explicitly against the Arab population, or that is harsh on immigrants and refugees - anything that will strengthen the Jewish state,'' she said.
The Council of Presidents of Israeli Universities had opposed the change in status for the college and more than 1000 Israeli academics also signed a petition against it.
Approving Ariel College's status as a university was the latest example of Israel's determination to consolidate its occupation of the Palestinian territory, said Ghassan Khatib, a senior Palestinian Authority spokesman.
''The two-state solution is in real danger … Israel's moves make a Palestinian state less viable,'' Dr Khatib said.
Commentators are tipping an election, which is not due until October next year, could now be held between February and April next year.