- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2012

Israel’s Kadima party could lose a large breakaway faction of lawmakers following its leader’s controversial decision to join the current Israeli government, The Washington Times has learned.

The Israeli political scene was turned on its head Tuesday, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a deal with new Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz to bring the large centrist party into his coalition, which is currently dominated by his Likud Party and other right-wing blocs.

The pact nullified Mr. Netanyahu’s call just two days earlier for early elections and all but ensured that his government would serve until October 2013, when its term expires.

But in a phone interview Thursday morning, a day after the Knesset approved the accord between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Mofaz, Kadima lawmaker Shlomo Molla said that “more than seven” of his party’s 28 Knesset members (MKs) were prepared to break away from the party if there is not a “dramatic change” in the current government’s policies “before the end of June.”

Another Kadima MK, Yoel Hasson, told The Times that he and other Kadima MKs were eying July 31 as the moment of truth for the new unity government. On that day, Israel’s Tal Law — which exempts ultra-Orthodox Jews from the nation’s mandatory military-service laws — is set to expire.

Under his deal with Mr. Mofaz, Mr. Netanyahu had pledged to replace the Tal Law with a bill that would require some form of national service from all Israelis, including the ultra-Orthodox and the country’s Arab minority.

“If this reform is going to happen with the Tal Law,” Mr. Hasson said, “it’s a revolution, and it’s something that everyone is going to give Kadima credit for because without Kadima, it would never happen.” Mr. Hasson also said Kadima MKs wanted the new government to pursue electoral reform and a new course in the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

Should Mr. Netanyahu not deliver on these fronts, Mr. Hasson said that he and like-minded Kadima MKs would seek a majority within the party to leave the coalition “immediately.” Were they to fail to get a majority, he said, “then all options are open.” Mr. Hasson emphasized that he hoped the party would not be forced to split. “Dividing Kadima is the last option,” he said.

Under Israeli election laws, Knesset members comprising at least a third of their party are able to form breakaway factions. The law enabled Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and four other MKs to secede from the thirteen-member Labor Party last January and remain in the government as the other Labor MKs left.

The laws, however, were amended at the behest of Mr. Netanyahu in 2009 to allow any seven lawmakers — even if they fell short of a third of their party — to form a breakaway faction. Ironically, the new law — then dubbed “the Mofaz Law” — was part of an unsuccessful plot to entice Mr. Mofaz, then serving unhappily with six loyal Kadima lawmakers under party leader Tzipi Livni, into leaving Kadima and joining Mr. Netanyahu’s government.

Mr. Mofaz, who unseated Ms. Livni in March, had pledged not to join Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, repeatedly calling the premier a liar, but changed course after polls showed Kadima shrinking from its current 28 mandates to as few as nine were elections to be held on September 4, as Mr. Netanyahu had called for on Sunday.

While a seven-member Kadima breakaway would still leave Mr. Netanyahu with an unassailable 87-lawmaker coalition in the 120-member Knesset, it would be a huge blow to Kadima and to Mr. Mofaz.

Asked whether a breakaway faction would consider merging with the left-leaning Labor Party, now Israel’s largest opposition bloc, Mr. Molla used the same line as Mr. Hasson: “all options are open.”

The comments from Messrs. Molla and Hasson came Tuesday morning, a day after former minister Haim Ramon — one of Kadima’s founders — announced he was leaving the party, saying it had “gone back to being the Likud.”

Kadima was formed in late 2005 by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a longtime Likud stalwart who bolted his party due to internal opposition to his uprooting of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Though Mr. Sharon suffered a stroke within months of Kadima’s creation, the party won the most seats in the 2006 elections under Mr. Sharon’s deputy Ehud Olmert, who formed a government that lasted until 2009. While Ms. Livni’s Kadima won one more seat than Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud in Israel’s 2009 elections, she was unable to form a governing coalition due to the relative weakness of other center-left parties.

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