Netanyahu government crunches on military bill

Netanyahu government crunches on military bill

Netanyahu government crunches on military bill

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends a session at the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, in Jerusalem. AP photo

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s biggest coalition ally has stepped up threats to quit Israel’s government, in a widening dispute over its demand to curtail military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab Israelis.

“We are in the midst of a crisis, but we also have an opportunity. Without a meaningful solution we cannot remain in the government,” said Shaul Mofaz, the leader of the Kadima party, which joined the government in May, giving Netanyahu a massive parliamentary majority. After a party meeting on July 11, Mofaz stated that he would leave the coalition today if progress was not made on the issue, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Military service is a highly emotive issue in Israel, where most men and women start a two or three-year service at the age of 18, with many subsequently called up for reserve duty into their 40s. Many Orthodox Jews are exempted so that they can pursue religious studies, angering the more secular majority.

The issue has rocked Netanyahu’s government ahead of an Aug. 1 deadline, when a law granting blanket draft exemptions to ultra-Orthodox youths expires, following a high court ruling that it was unconstitutional. Netanyahu appeared to have eased the tension by declaring support for draft reform last weekend, after Kadima threatened to quit his government and 20,000 Israelis marched in Tel Aviv to protest at draft exemptions.

Quota problem

He and the Kadima leader, Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, named a team to draft a new policy headed by Yochanan Plesner of Kadima, who published recommendations last week to slash the number of exemptions, and Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a former general in Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.

A new dispute flared on July 11, however, over Plesner’s demand to set a quota for exemptions and to impose stiff penalties on any violators. Plesner’s report called for reducing the exemptions from a current 50,000 to 1,500 by 2016. Netanyahu’s rightist allies objected, apparently wary of angering influential religious leaders opposed to draft reform, according to Reuters. Kadima has 28 seats in Israel’s Parliament.

Its departure would not immediately undermine Netanyahu’s government but could seriously weaken his large coalition and move up national elections, now expected to be held in November 2013. Ya’alon accused Kadima of “creating a deliberate impasse,” telling reporters that the government could survive without meeting the Aug. 1 deadline by following the current exemptions policy, pending new legislation.

Mofaz wants the new draft legislation approved in Parliament before it adjourns for summer recess this month. Reform of the military draft was one of the main promises Kadima made when it joined Netanyahu’s government in May.