Two months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was riding high. Already popular in the polls, Netanyahu managed to convince his main opposition, the centrist Kadima Party, to form a unity government, which gave the prime minister the largest majority in the country’s political history. Netanyahu’s mandate seemed so strong that Time magazine dubbed the American-educated prime minister “King Bibi”, and put his face on the cover.
On Tuesday, that moniker suddenly appeared hasty, as Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Kadima, announced that his party was leaving the coalition over disagreements with Netanyahu on how to pass a law that would compel all Israeli citizens, including Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox Jews, to join the Army. Mofaz reportedly read a proposal on the draft law that Netanyahu submitted early this afternoon and believed that the prime minister was not sufficiently trying to change the status quo.
“Netanyahu has chosen to side with the draft-dodgers,” Mofaz told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “I have reached an understanding that the prime minister has not left us a choice and so we have responded.”
Netanyahu expressed “regret” at Kadima’s decision, stating that “the only way to implement this on the ground is gradually and without tearing Israeli society apart.”
Ironically, Israeli society has never looked more fragmented. Since the founding of the state of Israel, ultra-religious yeshiva students have been largely exempt from serving in the Israeli army in order to study religious law. Over the years there has been growing disapproval from the secular majority pointing to the unfair allocation of the draft burden. In February, the Israeli Supreme Court declared that these exemptions were unconstitutional.
Over the past few weeks, the turbulent political debate has spilled out onto the streets. Recently, a demonstration in Tel Aviv coined “the suckers’ protest” called for equal sharing of the burden of defending the country, demanding an across-the-board draft for Israeli citizens. As he attempted to hash out an agreement with Netanyahu, Mofaz openly supported the protests.
Despite stinging criticism from both the right and the left, Mofaz had entered into the agreement with Netanyahu in May after the prime minister promised to find common ground on the draft law and the floundering peace process with the Palestinians, among other things. His decision to leave the government appeared to be a last-ditch effort to present himself as a man of principle and regain the plunging electoral support that has plagued his ailing party.
Netanyahu’s attempts to appease both protesters and his crucial religious constituencies appears to have failed miserably, making him seem more like a trickster than an all-powerful king. Yet the prime minister appears popular enough to stay in office if early elections indeed loom in February.
The news of Mofaz’s departure came just a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Israel and urged a restart to the peace process with the Palestinians. Without Kadima as part of the government, however, many observers doubt that Netanyahu’s government will move ahead with any serious efforts to overcome the longstanding stalemate.