The surprising formation of a coalition between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the more liberal Kadima party seemed to provide Netanyahu with nearly unlimited power. The addition of twenty-eight Knesset members from Kadima bolstered his already considerable sway over Israeli politics, and the move appeared to endow him with miles of political maneuverability.
But as William Galston points out at The New Republic, “nothing is straightforward” in Israel. Netanyahu’s seemingly stable coalition already is fraught with fractures, the largest of which stems from the heated debate on national service. The state of Israel was founded on the understanding that Arab citizens and the most religious Israelis were exempt from the requirement of military or civilian service incumbent upon other Israeli citizens. While these exemptions initially applied to a negligible amount of the population, the number of highly observant, or haredim, youth eligible but not performing service is now over fifty thousand.
In recent years, the burden these exclusions place on serving Israeli citizens has become increasingly untenable, and cries for reform have grown louder. Netanyahu, closely allied with several religious parties, has steadfastly resisted. But he faces pressure from his new Kadima allies and members of right-wing secular parties, who decry exemptions not only for the haredim but also for Arab Israelis and liberal conscientious objectors.
According to Galston, the issue of national service is “heightening just about every fault-line in the country—religious versus secular, Jews versus Arabs, left versus right.” As the country splinters, so too might its novel unity government. Months ago, Netanyahu appeared to have captured an unstoppable majority, to have quieted the opposition and secured his position at the top. Now it seems the foundations upon which he has built his power are cracking. And if Galston’s smart analysis is any indication, it may not be long before they crumble.