Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children wear handcuffs as they protest against a uniform draft law to replace the Tal Law in Jerusalem, Israel on July 16, 2012. The Tal Law, which exempts ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from mandatory military service, was declared unconstitutional by the High Court in February, and is due to expire in August.
Credit: Lior Mizrahi

JERUSALEM, Israel — Israel’s broad coalition government, established only 10 weeks ago, has collapsed over the issue of conscription for ultra-orthodox young men.

Bereft of its super majority, the Netanyahu government now rests on a fragile majority of only 65 seats out of the 120-member Knesset, which implies unstable ground in what is emerging as a blistering political summer.

With social protests on the rise, the right wing maneuvering for future elections and the center looking for a clear direction, Netanyahu now finds himself crushed between two incompatible political imperatives: the majority of his citizens on the one hand, and the religious minority who ensure his government's majority on the other.

The failed union had first been cobbled together in May by two leaders looking for a life-line.

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Netanyahu hoped to keep the coalition together until elections in late 2013. He gambled on the stability — and moderating influence — of centrist Kadima's 29 parliamentary seats to bolster his chances.

Shaul Mofaz, a former Israel Army Chief of Staff and newly elected leader of Kadima, meanwhile, was banking on an extra year to introduce himself from a position of power to a skeptical electorate. He only defeated former Foreign Minister Tsippi Livni for the party’s leadership after a particularly bruising campaign.

But Netanyahu and Mofaz were both tripped up by the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled in the same week they fashioned their coalition, that the Tal Law, legislation designed to mollify right-wing religious parties by enshrining a permanent draft deferment for young religious men, flouted the Basic Law of the Land — Israel's version of a constitution.

Tuesday augured darkly for Mofaz, who faced a rebellion among his own party members, many of whom resented the original decision to join the coalition, which was made unilaterally behind their backs and which many viewed as no more than a ploy to bolster Mofaz's personal standing.

Kadima Knesset member Meir Shitreet issued the first volley, calling on his party leader to leave the government without delay and threatening rebellion.

"We have no place in this government," he railed on an early morning show on Israel Army Radio. "There is no reason to remain."

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Mofaz was all but corralled into calling an urgent meeting of his faction, which resulted 25 out of the 29 members voting to leave the government.

Many Israeli political analysts said the chances of Netanyahu’s government surviving until Election Day has been drastically reduced. Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich immediately called for early elections.

"This shady and embarrassing union has ended after only two months of political tricks and spin. Both Netanyahu and Mofaz have proven themselves unreliable. I call for an end to this farce and I hope they both join me in early elections," she said.

Tsippi Livni, Mofaz's predecessor as Kadima leader, was widely hailed for the vindication of today's political turn.

"This coalition was conceived in sin," she said, heading for a social protest rally in Jerusalem. "Israel deserves a change, and I promise you that change will come."

The fate of Netanyahu’s government may have been decided about two weeks ago, when the prime minister unilaterally dissolved a committee he had established to find a solution to the question of the draft of religious men.

Netanyahu's decision was widely seen as a capitulation to the demands of his right-wing religious coalition partners, who while representing a minority, hold great leverage in Israel's frail parliamentary balance.

From an historical point of view, the collapse of this scheme is a direct result of what many consider the nation's original "birth defect," an arrangement created by David Ben Gurion, the state's first prime minister, in 1948, exempting religious men from the otherwise universal draft.

In a post-World War II context, with European Jewry almost decimated and Israel's secular pioneers in great majority, it proved a way of including the religious minority in mainstream national life. Over the six decades since, as the ultra-orthodox minority has grown robust, the non-draft exemption has become a sacred cow for religious parties and growing thorn in the side of a left-to-right coalition of secular citizens.

This summer, the universal draft has become a central tenet of Israel’s Occupy movement, representing Israel's silent majority of men and women who serve two to three years in the army starting at age 18, many of whom are called for reserve duty into their 40s.

On Monday, Netanyahu proposed a compromise deal whereby religious women would remain exempt and men would be able to postpone their enlistment until the age of 26. The proposal was widely derided, as most ultra-Orthodox young men marry in their late teens, and by age 26 are the fathers of multiple children and thus exempt from army service due to paternity. In addition, many live off of state subsidies granted to religious students, another legacy of the Ben Gurion era.

In announcing his departure, a chastened Mofaz sounded a defiantly electoral tone, accusing Netanyahu of having chosen "draft dodgers who evade their responsibilities over our girls and boys. He has chosen the extreme right and left us with no choice but to leave."

"There will be no social justice until there is an equal sharing of the burden," Mofaz continued. "We are willing to compromise, but there is a big difference between flexibility and denying reality. There will be no law postponing anyone's draft until the age of 26 under my watch. We will not be a party to this great lie to the public."

"History is not generous towards people who could have done everything and chose instead to do nothing," he concluded.

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