As Kadima departs, political turbulence will likely translate to smooth sailing for ultra-Orthodox

As Kadima departs, political turbulence will likely translate to smooth sailing for ultra-Orthodox

Mofaz’s ungracious exit leaves a vacuum in the political center, and in the space new national service legislation was supposed to fill

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Shaul Mofaz speaking to ultra-Orthodox students in Jerusalem last week. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Shaul Mofaz speaking to ultra-Orthodox students in Jerusalem last week. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

The May 8 deal that brought Kadima into the coalition came as a complete surprise to the entire nation. Even the savviest Knesset insiders went to sleep the night before thinking the country was headed for early elections, only to wake up to the announcement of a unity government, one of the largest in Israel’s history, that was aspiring to achieve “historic changes.” Tuesday’s news that the experiment has failed, and that no historic changes will occur anytime soon, wasn’t really a surprise.

Already more than two weeks ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly disbanded the so-called Plesner committee, it had become apparent the Kadima-Likud partnership wasn’t built to last. Headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, the committee was tasked with formulating a bill to replace the Tal Law, which for a decade allowed yeshiva students to indefinitely defer army service but was struck down by the Supreme Court in February as unconstitutional. Netanyahu, probably thinking about who could be more valuable to him after the next elections, decided to side with his Haredi coalition partners and essentially showed Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz the door there and then.

Once Netanyahu decided that he wasn’t going to endorse Plesner’s recommendations and unilaterally dissolved the committee – whose establishment was a precondition for Kadima’s joining the coalition – Mofaz should have realized that his adventurous decision to switch his title from opposition leader to vice prime minister would end in failure.

It’s unclear whether Kadima’s return to the opposition bench means early elections. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition functioned more or less stably for three years. The summer Knesset recess starts next week. If he manages to somehow appease the Haredi parties – which reject any forced draft of their constituency — and at the same time satisfies the nationalist-secular Yisrael Beytenu — which demands that all citizens serve, with no exception – he could yet survive until the scheduled next elections, in October 2013.

“The change [in the conscription law] will come either way,” coalition chairman Zeev Elkin said minutes before Kadima voted itself out of the government. “I will continue to seek a responsible solution,” Netanyahu pledged.

Now the spotlight will be on Yisrael Beytenu. The party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman was ready to break apart the previous coalition over the Tal Law replacement. And nothing says it won’t do the same thing again. On Wednesday, the Knesset will vote on the party’s own conscription bill in the first reading. It had passed the ministerial committee before Kadima entered the government but was frozen to give Plesner a chance.

“Kadima’s departure from the government does not mean the end of the struggle for an equal share in the burden,” Yisrael Beytenu MK Moshe Matalon said on Tuesday night. “If the subject is so important to them, I hope to see them supporting our proposal – enlistment for all – which will come up for a vote tomorrow.” However, party officials admit, for political reasons, it is likely the Kadima party will not support Liberman’s bill.

The Tal Law expires on August 1. If in the two weeks that remain no replacement bill is passed into law, the decades-old Security Service Law will come into effect. That means that thousands of Haredim would no longer be exempted from military service and would have to show up at the next available induction center.

Once there, though, there will be no real change to their fate. The IDF is not about to put them all in uniform, as the prime minister has already made clear.

“I prefer an agreed-upon and gradual solution, but if we cannot reach such a solution by August 1, the IDF will draft according to its needs, and I believe that it will do so while taking into consideration the various publics so as to prevent a rift in the nation,” Netanyahu said two weeks ago, when he dissolved the Plesner committee. “Since the Security Service Law does not deal with the participation of the Arab and ultra-orthodox publics in civilian service, we will also work to provide arrangements for this issue.”

The deal that brought Kadima into coalition was signed on the very evening that Knesset was about to dissolve itself. While early elections had generally been agreed upon, the truth is that nobody truly knew why they were necessary. Nobody really wanted these elections, and so Netanyahu and Mofaz agreed to the national unity deal, each for their own reasons.

Judging from his confident statements on the first day of the grand coalition, Mofaz really believed he could achieve something. Of course he also wanted to throw Kadima a lifeline. Ever since he took over as party chairman, the polls were predicting that little would remain of its current 28-strong Knesset faction after the next elections. Netanyahu, for his part, was hoping that with the backing of 94 MKs, he could easily push through any law he wanted. In fact, Mofaz proved ready to leave after just 10 weeks, preferring to embarrass himself and his party rather than be Netanyahu’s puppet.

Mofaz had been notorious for flip-flopping ever since he declared that “one doesn’t leave his home” and a few days later left his home — the Likud — to join the newly founded Kadima. The press ridiculed him when he joined Netanyahu’s government two months ago, reminding him that not too long before he had called the prime minister “a liar”… and promised never to join the government.

Mofaz had big plans when he entered the coalition. Besides a reform of the draft law, he wanted to advance the peace process, electoral reform and policies geared toward maintaining a Jewish and democratic Israel. “The prime minister and I will be judged by results and not by promises,” Mofaz said on May 8. Less than three months later and with zero results, Mofaz’s political future seems bleak.

What does Kadima’s ungracious exit from the government mean for Israel’s political landscape? That’s an open question. But the center ground is vacant again.

Three Kadima MKs voted against leaving the coalition; they might look for ways to stay in the government, perhaps by trying to split the party. It is no secret that a good number of Kadima MKs are unhappy about Mofaz’s leadership and are looking for a good opportunity to abandon the sinking ship that is the party.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, recently acquitted of the most severe corruption charges against him, officially denies plans for a comeback, but confidants say he wishes for nothing more than to return to the Prime Minister’s Office — should his other legal hurdles melt away. Kadima co-founder and ex-MK Haim Ramon recently announced plans to replace Kadima with a new centrist party. And there is still Yair Lapid, the former TV anchorman, whose new party will undoubtedly benefit from Mofaz’s botched maneuver.

Intriguingly, Mofaz’s party leader predecessor Tzipi Livni Tuesday moved with uncharacteristic speed to hint at a comeback, promising a better government for Israel just minutes after Kadima officially returned to the opposition. And, unlike Mofaz, when she says she won’t join a Netanyahu-led coalition, there’s no doubting her credibility.


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