Israeli Mega-Coalition Collapses

Was the center-left Kadima Party looking for an excuse to exit?

Not long ago I lauded the advent of Israel’s new mega-coalition government. That development surprised everyone, being announced on May 8 just as the country seemed headed for new elections.

Instead the largest opposition party, left-of-center Kadima—which according to all surveys would have declined steeply in the elections—joined the coalition led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-of-center Likud Party. The coalition thereby expanded to 94 Knesset members out of a total of 120.

Along with enhancing national unity at a time of growing Middle Eastern instability and threats, I saw, as did many, a rare chance to legislate two key, much-needed changes. One would involve equalizing the draft in Israel so that its haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) and Arab communities would have to do either military or civilian service instead of being largely exempt. The other would involve changing the country’s parliamentary system to enable stable coalitions and an end to the blackmail power of small parties.

In what turned out to be its short life, the mega-coalition government never even got around to addressing the second issue. It had, though, been wrangling intensively over the first one—drafting haredim and Arabs, particularly the former. This week, though, Kadima claimed it had unbridgeable differences with Likud over the draft issue. On Tuesday Kadima voted 25-3 to leave the government, bringing it back down to a much slimmer 66 MKs.

As is natural in Israeli and other politics, recriminations are flying.

The ostensible unbridgeable gap involved Kadima’s desire to go rougher and Likud’s desire to go easier on the haredim. Kadima’s point man, MK Yohanan Plesner, insisted that all of them be drafted by age 23, with harsh penalties including jail for those who dodged enlistment. Likud’s point man, Strategic Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, favored giving them options of waiting till age 26 and also pushed lighter penalties for shirkers.

Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff whom Netanyahu had also made a deputy prime minister for the mega-coalition’s brief duration, claimed Likud was merely putting its longstanding political alliance with haredi parties over the national interest. As Mofaz wrote in his resignation letter:

I had hoped that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would go beyond petty politics and make a historic decision together with us. But unfortunately…the prime minister decided to stay put rather than go forward and chose the interests of the minority over that of the majority.

As Netanyahu wrote to Mofaz in reply:

I am sorry you decided to give up on a chance to make a historic change. After 64 years [of statehood], we were on the cusp of introducing real change in the division of the burden. I presented you with a proposal that would have led to the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs from the age of 18. I explained to you that the only way to implement this was through a gradual process that would not tear apart Israeli society, particularly in this period, when the state of Israel is facing many momentous challenges. I will continue to work toward the responsible solution that Israeli society expects.

Likud point man Yaalon, for his part, said Kadima had sought to “declare war on a whole sector of the population” and noted that the “gradual change” Netanyahu had called for has already been underway for years, with a small but steady growth in haredi enlistment after decades of leading a cloistered life as state-subsidized yeshiva students.

As Yaalon put it: “We are seeing a positive process in the haredi world—we are seeing more and more of them in the army, studying [general subjects]and working—these are things that we never saw before….”

Mati Tuchfeld, a columnist for Israel’s popular conservative daily Israel Hayom, had harsher words, writing:

it was obvious that Mofaz never intended to legislate a mandatory ultra-Orthodox military draft or to reform the system of government. His only goal was to extricate his party from the certain doom that awaited it in the imminent election…. It is now clear that the only version of a mandatory ultra-Orthodox enlistment law that Kadima would have supported would have been [one that prompted] the ultra-Orthodox parties to quit the coalition…. When Mofaz realized that this was not going to happen, he got up and left. The negotiations between Kadima and Likud over the last two weeks were nothing more than a charade….

Who’s right? Has it been Netanyahu playing cynical games, or Mofaz and Kadima?

A piece of what could be called smoking-gun evidence suggests it’s the latter. As Israel Hayom revealed earlier this week, just two months earlier Kadima had submitted a bill opposing stiff punishments for draft evaders and—no less—calling for a haredi enlistment age of 26. On the day of that report, July 15, a Likud cabinet minister already said that “Kadima wants to dismantle the partnership; everything is just a game.” Netanyahu replied: “There’s a lot of truth to that.”

One can also ask if a dispute over the age of enlistment, along with some other points of disagreement, was really so grave a rift that Kadima had no choice but to bolt—or was looking to do so all along.

In any case, Israel is now left again with a narrow coalition while the Middle East is literally exploding around it. But if Kadima is incapable of showing national responsibility, perhaps it’s best that it’s out of the picture and likely on the way to electoral oblivion.

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