x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Israel split over military draft may lead to early elections

Netanyahu weakened as allies quit in row over exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from army conscriptions.

TEL AVIV // A senior Israeli official suggested yesterday that the country may face early elections after prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main political partner quit the ruling coalition in a dispute over the military draft of the ultra-Orthodox.

The exit of Kadima, the biggest centrist party, from the government late on Tuesday, was a setback for Mr Netanyahu whose position has been weakened on a number of fronts, including the draft and economic grievances.

Mr Netanyahu and Kadima's leader, Shaul Mofaz, had agreed that draft exemptions as a whole should end but differed on how many ultra-Orthodox men should be drafted and at what age.

Kadima's departure from the coalition after just 70 days will still leave the premier in control of a majority of the 120-member parliament. But it may spur Mr Netanyahu to call for new elections amid growing discord among his remaining secular and ultra-Orthodox partners over army conscription exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox.

Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister and leader of the ultranationalist and secular Yisrael Beitenu party, yesterday told an Israeli radio station: "It's clear to me that there will be elections next year. The official date is October 22 but, as of February, any date is possible." He did not say why a ballot would not be possible before February.

The break-up was widely viewed by Israeli commentators yesterday as weakening Mr Netanyahu's political standing. It comes as the premier is being challenged by a renewal of last summer's massive street rallies, which may escalate after an Israeli man set himself on fire during a Saturday demonstration in a desperate act of protest against Israel's high cost of living.

Kadima's departure also leaves Mr Netanyahu open to criticism that his government is dominated by the pro-settler right.

Tamir Shaefer, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said the premier may be forced to call for an early election because "there are too many problems facing his coalition, including the dispute over the ultra-Orthodox draft and the growing social and economic protests".

Mr Shaefer said that the main issue that may postpone elections further is an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, in which case Mr Netanyahu would not risk further destabilising Israel's political leadership by opting for new elections.

The dispute between Mr Mofaz, the Kadima leader, and Mr Netanyahu centred on one of the most controversial issues in Israel's domestics politics - the decades-long military draft exemptions of the ultra-Orthodox minority.

The exemptions have sparked a bitter division between the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox community, which insists their lives be dedicated to studying the Hebrew bible, and the secular Jewish majority that dominates the army.

In Israel, military service is mandatory for all 18-year-olds, with men serving for three years and women for two. Afterwards, many Israeli men and some women report annually for reserve duty until age 40. Exemptions are granted to the ultra-Orthodox as well as to Arab citizens, the latter of which account for a fifth of the population.

The issue is especially contentious because it involves the military, which is the most respected institution for most Israeli Jews, many of whom view it as their sole protector from hostile Arab neighbours.

For Mr Mofaz, a 46-year veteran of the Israeli army who served as its chief of staff during the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, making the draft equal for the secular and the ultra-Orthodox was a key condition for him joining Mr Netanyahu's coalition.

In a letter to Mr Netanyahu that was publicised by Israeli media yesterday, Mr Mofaz wrote that the premier "opted for a pact with the ultra-Orthodox instead of an agreement with the Zionist majority".

Aluf Benn, a commentator for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, wrote yesterday that Mr Mofaz's position undermines Mr Netanyahu's power because their brief unity gave the premier's rivals more time to draw supporters and the street protests an opportunity to gather steam.

"There is still no clear contender who could challenge Netanyahu for the country's leadership, but the prime minister has become much more vulnerable," he said.

Analysts say the return to a predominantly right wing coalition and the political uncertainty over early elections is likely to also further delay any renewal of the peace process, possibly spurring more resentment from Palestinian leaders already frustrated with the deadlock.

Michael Warschawski, the founder of the Alternative Information Centre, a Jerusalem-based Israeli-Palestinian group, said Mr Netanyahu wanted Kadima in a bid to convey that his policies such as settlement expansion have drawn support from both the Israeli right and centre.

"The only chance now for a renewal of the peace process will be new American pressure on Israel to curb settlements, but that will not happen before the November US elections and it's uncertain whether even afterwards," he said.