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First rifts emerge in new Israeli coalition

- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 9, 2012

JERUSALEM (AP) — The first rifts in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's expanded coalition emerged just a day after he brought the main opposition party into his government, with religious and secular parties exchanging threats Wednesday over draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the government to halt the exemptions, which have allowed tens of thousands of ultrareligious men to skip compulsory military service and instead spend their days in subsidized religious studies. The government has a July 31 deadline to come up with a new arrangement.

The exemptions have infuriated secular Israelis, who say it is unfair that they have to risk their lives in the military while the religious study.

The dispute was a key factor in Mr. Netanyahu's surprising decision Tuesday to shore up his coalition by bringing in the Kadima Party.

Speaking to the Army Radio station, lawmaker Yitzhak Cohen of the religious Shas Party said Wednesday that "it's an illusion" to expect a court decision would force seminary students to serve in the military. Moshe Gafni, a leader in the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, warned of a brewing "cultural civil war."

But Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the fiercely secular Yisrael Beitenu Party, said there could be no "foot dragging" on the matter. Mr. Lieberman's plan to push legislation ending the exemptions helped spark the coalition crisis that resulted in Tuesday's deal.

Unable to bridge the differences over the draft exemptions, Mr. Netanyahu on Monday said he would call early parliamentary elections in September, more than a year ahead of schedule. But in a surprising turnaround, he subsequently reached a deal with Kadima overnight Tuesday that made elections unnecessary.

Mr. Netanyahu now presides over a supermajority of 94 members in the 120-seat parliament, meaning that neither the ultra-Orthodox nor Yisrael Beitenu can rob him of his parliamentary majority. Both factions, each with about 15 lawmakers, remain in the coalition.

At a news conference Tuesday, both Mr. Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief, pledged to find a fair solution to the draft issue.

The draft is just one of several contentious issues looming for the government. Another is the matter of Jewish settlements in territories that Palestinians claim for their future state.

The Supreme Court has ordered the government to dismantle a pair of settlement outposts found to be built illegally in the West Bank. Hard-liners in the coalition oppose any move against the settlers and still hope to thwart the planned demolitions by passing new legislation that would legalize the outposts.

Mr. Lieberman called the outpost issue a "test" for the government.

"I have no doubt the prime minister will do what all the elements of the coalition expect of him," he said.

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