Kadima bows out
THE SURPRISE was not the “historic” unity government’s collapse on Tuesday, but that, just 70 days ago, Shaul Mofaz, leader of Israel’s centrist Kadima party, ever agreed to give Binyamin Netanyahu a seemingly impregnable majority of 94 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Many in Kadima seriously doubted then whether the prime minister would honour his commitment to end military/civilian service exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, and for Palestinians, which are so angering much of secular Israel. Or honour other key elements of their deal. And their fears were justified – Mofaz’s position as party leader, indeed the party’s very viability, look increasingly untenable after his humiliating retreat.
The surprise coalition had agreed four elements to its programme: to pass a universal draft law, to reform the system of government, to kick-start the stagnating peace process, and to pass an emergency budget. None has been realised. And with its parliamentary allies reduced to an unstable 66, the rump Likud-led government is now dependent for survival on small hardline religous parties and the unpredictable conservative Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party. Netanyahu may yet find an election unavoidable before the January date that most commentators see as likely.
“Netanyahu has chosen to side with the draft-dodgers,” Mofaz said simply after he met his parliamentary group. The draft issue is a long-running bone of contention for what polls show to be 80 per cent of Israelis who believe draft-dodging is tantamount to unfair freeloading off the state. It acquired urgency because of a supreme court ruling invalidating exemptions granted from compulsory military or religious service to thousands of yeshiva (religious school) students from the Haredim community (now 10 per cent of the Israeli population). The Haredim’s right to study until the age of 26 has also created an unskilled, unemployable community, deliberately cut off from the mainstream lives of the majority, and which has become an increasingly welfare-dependent drain on the country’s economy.
Kadima set a goal of enlisting 80 per cent of the Haredim youth within four years, with stiff financial penalties for dodgers. Netanyahu, whose instincts have always been to rule from the irredentist right, succumbed to pressure from the religious party allies to argue for a far more gradual approach. Unfortunately, the price of his return to type will be more than just Israel’s secular agenda.