Israel's Kadima votes to leave government coalition

Israel's Kadima votes to leave government coalition

Israel's Kadima party, the largest faction in the governing coalition, voted Tuesday to quit the government in a row over exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from national service.

The Kadima caucus voted 25 to 3 to leave the coalition after party head Shaul Mofaz told them that there was "no choice" but to break up the 10-week-old partnership with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, after negotiations on a new universal national and military service law failed, dpa reported.

He told reporters after the vote that he rejected the latest proposal offered by Netanyahu, which called for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab-Israelis to join the army or perform national service, such as serving in police or fire units, by ages 23 to 26 - rather than by age 22, as proposed by Kadima.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to give up on our children, I will not" Mofaz said. "I stand by my words and wish us all luck in our shared goal of equalizing the burden. I am willing to compromise, but I have red lines I will not cross."

Mofaz and Netanyahu have been in deep disagreement over enacting a universal draft law to replace one that had effectively exempted ultra-Orthodox seminary students from compulsory military service, but which the Supreme Court had struck down in February.

The issue is extremely contentious in Israel, with thousands demonstrating earlier this month against the exemption and in favour of a universal draft.

The tensions boiled over at the beginning of July, when Netanyahu dissolved a committee charged with coming up with a new law. He said there had been too many defections from the committee to enable its recommendations to be accepted by parliament.

Negotiations to resolve the impasse got nowhere. Ultra-Orthodox parties, which Netanyahu also needs in his coalition, fiercely oppose a universal draft which would cancel the exemptions religious seminary students now enjoy.

When the country's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to allow the ultra-Orthodox to evade military service in favour of studying Jewish law, the number receiving such an exemption stood at 400. But by 2010 that had swelled to 62,500.

Arab-Israeli politicians have also spoken out against compelling their constituents to perform national service.

The departure of the 28 Kadima lawmakers will leave Netanyahu at the head of a coalition with a only slim majority - 66 of the 120 legislators in parliament - and could renew the push for the legislature to vote to dissolve itself and hold early elections ahead of the scheduled date of autumn next year.

Kadima only joined the coalition in May, heading off a possible early election, in one of the biggest surprises in recent Israeli political history.

When Kadima joined the coalition, Mofaz said a government of broad national unity would be able to push through far-reaching reforms and made the drafting of a new military and social service law a priority.

Netanyahu reacted to the Kadima decision by telling Mofaz he "regretted your decision to squander an opportunity to make a historic change."

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