Israel’s Netanyahu Splits Rival Liberal Party

The conservative premier divides liberals over military service for orthodox Jews.

Israel’s conservative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has managed to split his main electoral competitor in the liberal Kadima party. Just two months after it joined his right-wing government, Kadima walked out of the coalition but it left Netanyahu in a stronger position for next year’s election.

The issue that split the ruling coalition was the military draft. Orthodox Jewish students, comprising some 10 percent of potential recruits, are exempt from military service to the chagrin of the majority of secular Israelis. The issue divided Netanyahu’s own Likud as well as his coalition when, before Kadima joined, it relied on the support of nationalist and religious parties.

Determining that it would be easier to fight a general election than resolve the dispute within his coalition, Netanyahu initially called early elections in May of this year before he reached an eleventh hour coalition agreement with Kadima.

The liberal party, formed by moderate Likud members in 2005 who disapproved of their party’s hawkish stand on a Palestinian peace plan and were altogether more socially progressive than their conservative counterparts, gave Netanyahu the broadest mandate in Israeli political history with 94 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.

By bringing in centrist lawmakers, the premier hoped to thin out the influence of right-wing fringe parties, “providing Netanyahu the potential breathing space he needs to negotiate with the Palestinians on matters such as settlement construction, security cooperation and further withdrawals of Israeli defense forces from the West Bank,” according to Daniel R. DePetris at the Atlantic Sentinel in May.

As long as his governing coalition relied on religiously-oriented parties, including foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, the ultraorthodox Shas and pro-settler factions of Likud, Netanyahu always had a reason (or excuse) not to offer the Palestinians any concessions.

Kadima‘s departure, logically, means that there will not be a change in Israel’s posture toward the Palestinians. Depending on one’s interpretation of Netanyahu’s sincerity, that is either a gain or a loss for him.

What is certainly advantageous for the prime minister’s electoral prospects — there will have to be legislative elections before October of next year — is that Kadima has been divided with at least seven legislators intending to rejoin Likud.

The more fundamental problem is that Kadima “has essentially transformed itself from one single issue party (disengagement from Gaza) to another single issue party (equalizing the burden of service),” writes Michael Koplow at Ottomans and Zionists. “While this is a popular issue, it is not enough to sustain a viable party.”

Politically, Netanyahu has nothing to win by playing into the left’s opposition to the exemption of orthodox Jews from military service. He has everything to lose by alienating right-wing proponents of maintaining the law. It could divide his own party and drive conservative voters to the fringes at Likud‘s expense.

The matter has yet to be resolved but Netanyahu stands to benefit whatever decision he takes. Keeping the exemption in place will appease orthodox voters who could flock to Likud in the next election. Netanyahu can easily justify the decision to seculars by arguing that he was held hostage by intransigent fringe parties. If he does, there will likely be little voter movement between the parties on the right and Netanyahu can continue in the same government post 2013.

If he scraps the law, Netanyahu undermines Kadima‘s newfound raison d’être and consolidates the liberal and conservative vote, putting him on a track to majority rule in alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu alone, condemning fringe parties to where they were — on the fringe.