Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu's largest coalition partner has quit his government, increasing the power of hard-line parties. The pullout by centrist Kadima may hamper attempts to jump-start Mideast peace talks.
Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz had hoped his party could help work within the coalition to end a decades-old military conscription system that exempts tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students.
As a court-ordered deadline to change the law loomed, however, the sides were unable to forge a compromise.
"We made a real effort to push toward a new law that would change the balance of service," Mofaz, a former military chief of staff, told a news conference. "We are going back with our heads held high to lead the nation in the opposition," he added.
Prime Minister Netanyahu had sought a system that would gradually draft growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews over several years and continue the exemptions for some of them. Mofaz wanted the draftees to be incorporated much faster.
"I am sorry that you decided to give up the opportunity to bring about a historic change," Netanyahu wrote to Mofaz. "After 64 years, we were very close to a significant change in spreading the burden. I will continue to work to bring a responsible solution that Israeli society expects."
Exemptions have caused resentment among secular Israelis, who generally perform two to three years of compulsory service. But ultra-Orthodox leaders have adamantly refused to compromise, claiming their young men serve the nation through prayer and study.
In his letter of resignation as deputy prime minister, Mofaz wrote to Netanyahu, "Because of narrow political considerations, you chose the alliance with [the ultra-Orthodox] over an alliance with the Zionist majority."
Peace process paused
When the moderate Kadima joined the coalition two months ago, it gave Netanyahu's government a majority of 94 seats in the 120-member parliament. The majority will now be scaled back to 66 prompting speculation among some Israeli commentators over a possible early election.
The alliance had been portrayed as an opportunity for a new push to resume peace talks with Palestinians, which has yet to materialize. Talks have remained suspended since 2010 following a dispute over Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu now presides over religious and nationalist hardliners who oppose concessions.
mkg/slk (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)