Israel's coalition government has plunged into a political crisis after the largest party Kadima pulled out, leaving Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, to work with hardliners who oppose peace moves with the Palestinians.
The moderate party voted to quit the government on Tuesday over a disagreement on how the Tal Law, which exempts ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from mandatory military service, should be handled.
The High Court of Justice declared in February that the law was unconstitutional.
"We made a real effort to push toward a new law that would change the balance of service," said Kadima's leader Shaul Mofaz.
The former military chief of staff told a news conference he had tried to forge a "new social contract", but was presented with "red lines" that could not be crossed.
"We are going back with our heads held high to lead the nation in the opposition," he declared.
Kadima, which joined the coalition only two months ago, won one more seat than Netanyahu's Likud Party in the last election, making it the biggest party in the Knesset, or parliament.
But it was left outside the government when Netanyahu set up his original hardline team three years ago.
'Coalition of convenience'
James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, told Al Jazeera that the alliance could not have lasted.
"This was a coalition born of convenience. It was two political leaders - Mofaz and Netanyahu - who saw their polls slipping and they realised that by getting together they actually could salvage themselves and not have to go to a new election," he said.
"It was never a marriage born of anything other than two weak leaders trying to save their positions - and now it fell apart for the very reason it came together."
Kadima’s move could set the stage for early elections, a scenario that would paralyse Middle East diplomacy for months, said analysts.
Netanyahu will now have to work with a narrow parliamentary majority dominated by religious and nationalist hardliners who oppose concessions to the Palestinians.
The development comes at a time when Israeli-Palestinian talks have been in limbo for years over Israel's refusal to halt settlement building in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.
Mofaz brought the party into the coalition to work with 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 August 1 deadline to revise the law, the sides were unable to forge a compromise.
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.
Netanyahu had sought a system that would gradually draft growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox over several years, and continue the exemptions for a smaller number of them.
Mofaz wanted fewer exemptions and for the ultra-religious to be incorporated much faster. The talks were complicated by calls for Israel's Arab minority, who are exempt from the draft, to be forced into civilian national service.
In a letter to Mofaz, Netanyahu expressed regret over 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."
- Most Israelis are required to serve in the military beginning when they are 18 years old.
- Males serve for three years while women serve for two years.
- In 1948, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 students at yeshivas – religious seminary schools – from military service in order to gain political support from ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
- Today, Israel has an estimated 60,000 yeshiva students, whose studies are subsidised by the government and who are not required to serve in the military.
- Israel’s Arab minority – who comprise roughly 20 per cent of Israel’s 7.8 million citizens – are also exempt from serving in the military.
- However, men belonging to Israel’s Druze and Circassian communities are required to serve.
- Although not required to do so, some ultra-Orthodox and non-Druze Israeli Arabs, including Bedouins, do serve in the Israeli military.
Source: AP, Reuters