- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 17, 2012

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel plunged toward a political crisis Tuesday after the largest member of the government quit, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in charge of a hard-line coalition opposed to most Mideast peace moves.

The moderate Kadima Party voted to pull out of the government just two months after joining. The move appeared to push the country closer to early elections, a scenario that would paralyze Mideast diplomacy for months.

Even if Mr. Netanyahu manages to hold the truncated coalition together, the sudden crisis has broader implications for Mideast peace, leaving him in charge of a narrow parliamentary majority dominated by religious and nationalist hard-liners who oppose concessions to the Palestinians.

Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz brought the party into the coalition to work with Mr.  Netanyahu on ending a contentious, decades-old system that has granted draft exemptions to tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students. But with a court-ordered Aug. 1 deadline looming, the sides were unable to forge a compromise.

“We made a real effort to push toward a new law that would change the balance of service,” Mr. Mofaz, a former military chief of staff, told a news conference.

Mr. Mofaz said he tried to forge a “new social contract” but was presented with “red lines” that couldn’t be crossed. “We are going back with our heads held high to lead the nation in the opposition,” he declared.

Kadima is the largest party in Israel’s parliament, winning one more seat than Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the last election, but it was left outside the government when Mr. Netanyahu set up his original hard-line team.

The draft exemptions have caused widespread resentment among Israel’s secular majority, who are required to perform two to three years of compulsory service. Ultra-Orthodox leaders have been equally adamant in their refusal to compromise, claiming their young men serve the nation through prayer and study.

Mr. Netanyahu sought a system that would gradually would have drafted growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox over several years and continue the exemptions for some of them. Mr. Mofaz wanted draftees incorporated much faster.

In a letter to Mr. Mofaz, Mr. Netanyahu expressed regret over Mr. Mofaz’s decision.

“I am sorry that you decided to give up the opportunity to bring about a historic change. After 64 years we were very close to a significant change in spreading the burden (of army service),” he said. “I will continue to work to bring a responsible solution that Israeli society expects.”

It remained unclear what would happen after Aug. 1.

Mr. Netanyahu’s government, torn between religious and secular parties, was on the brink of collapse over the draft issue when Mr. Mofaz was lured into the government in an overnight deal in May. Those divisions are likely to hinder new attempts by Mr. Netanyahu to reform the draft.

Kadima’s addition gave Mr. Netanyahu a majority of 94 seats in the 120-member parliament, raising hopes that they would not only resolve the draft issue but also make progress on peace matters with the Palestinians.

Mr. Mofaz, a political moderate, favors broad concessions to the Palestinians and has proposed the formation of an interim Palestinian state while final borders are negotiated.

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