JERUSALEM -- Israel’s much-touted grand coalition broke apart Tuesday as the centrist Kadima party said it would quit less than three months after it surprised the nation by joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
The fracture -- prompted by a dispute over a bill to draft religious students into the army -- does not bring down Netanyahu’s government, but it will probably trigger early elections.
During a Kadima faction meeting, party leader Shaul Mofaz blamed Netanyahu for the split.
“With great distress, I say there’s no escape but to take the decision to leave the coalition,” Mofaz told members. “It was not easy to enter the government. I paid a public price for it. But there’s no escape from the need to break away.”
Mofaz was seeking to pass a strict, enforceable law that would ensure that ultra-Orthodox young people would be required to serve in the army like other Jewish 18-year-olds. Netanyahu is seeking a more gradual phase-in that would have addressed the concerns of Israeli’s politically powerful religious conservatives.
The sudden departure is likely to undermine the credibility of Mofaz, who will return to the opposition and seek to unseat Netanyahu in the next election.
Two years ago Mofaz encouraged Kadima to join Netanyahu’s government, but he insisted earlier this year when he was elected party chairman that he would never join. Then he surprised the nation in May by doing exactly that.
Kadima’s participation created one of the biggest coalitions in Israel’s history and was praised as a political masterstroke by Netanyahu. At the time, the prime minister’s supporters predicted he would use the 78% majority in Israel’s Knesset to push through an aggressive agenda, including possibly a plan to restart Palestinian peace talks. Time magazine put him on its cover under the banner “King Bibi,” referring to his nickname.
Now Netanyahu will return to having a slim majority in the legislature, giving more influence to his smaller partners like the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu.
The broad coalition with Kadima instead becomes a political footnote and one of Israel’s shortest-lived governments.
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz seal the formation of Israel's grand coalition with a handshake on May 8. Mofaz announced Tuesday that Kadima was leaving the government. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press