Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz held a late-night meeting on Thursday in what was a last-ditch effort to reach an agreement about the new universal draft law. During the meeting, the two sides apparently agreed that Kadima would remain in the coalition, at least for the time being, after the parties were on the verge of a split.
There was no breakthrough during the meeting, but it is believed that the sides will continue to hold discussions at the beginning of next week and that until then Kadima, the largest party in the coalition, will remain in the government.
As of Thursday night, the disagreement between Kadima and Likud — which centers on the proposed draft quota for haredi men — was still unresolved. A source in the Prime Minister's Office said Thursday that if both sides show a willingness to come to an agreement, an understanding can be reached to find an agreeable alternative to the Tal Law, which exempts the ultra-Orthodox from army service.
Earlier Thursday, the situation looked bleaker after the Kadima representative in the new law's draft committee, MK Yohanan Plesner, cancelled his participation in two planned meetings with Likud representative Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon. Senior Likud officials accused Kadima of trying to sabotage the talks and quit the coalition.
A source close to Plesner claimed that he had to cancel the meetings due to family reasons, but Plesner himself said, "Either way there was no point in having the meeting."
By Thursday evening, Mofaz gathered his team of advisers for an urgent consultation to decide how to move forward, after saying on Wednesday that he would decide in the coming days whether or not Kadima would remain in the government. Before the meeting, a Mofaz associate said that Kadima leaned more toward quitting the coalition.
Senior officials in both Kadima and Likud harshly criticized Plesner, saying that his insistence on setting a limit on the number of haredim who can remain in yeshivas was preventing a deal from being reached. Ya'alon is reportedly pushing for a gradual implementation of universal draft, and is not in favor of setting an exemption limit.
"Instead of moving toward a historic law, Plesner is taking an extreme stance and prefers to dismantle the coalition," said a senior Likud official.
A senior Kadima official said, "[Plesner] has no political experience. Any other [high-ranking MK] from Kadima could have come to an acceptable agreement that could be passed in the Knesset and that would lead to actual haredi enlistment."
A Likud official, meanwhile, said that last May a law proposal was presented to the Knesset, signed by Plesner, stipulating that haredim would be allowed to postpone enlistment until the age of 26, but that now Plesner was adamant about changing the postponement age to 22. Kadima has denied the claim.
Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem earlier Thursday, Ya'alon said, "I don't think there will be new legislation by the High Court of Justice's deadline date of August 1 (when the Tal Law is set to expire). We have yet to bridge the gaps with Kadima, but even if they leave and the coalition shrinks — we will survive it."
Mofaz, who participated in a conference for the Israeli Bar Association in Eilat on Thursday, said, "The law proposal we are preparing is meant to pave the way [for haredim] to assume responsibility, to be a part of the State of Israel in the work force, army service and civil service. There are tens of thousands of citizens who do not take part and can contribute to the [country's] growth and raise the gross national product. If we don't take care of this now, another 10 years will pass until we have another opportunity to pass the law. I hope we will be able to offer a law proposal that will change the country after 64 years. It will be a historic moment."
Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias (Shas), also at the conference in Eilat, told the panel of guests that "haredi society is undergoing a profound process of change, and it understands that it must make the required changes."
On the backdrop of the ongoing disagreement between the two largest coalition parties, the haredi sector is bracing itself for the coming decisive days. On Friday, a mass prayer service for children will be held, headed by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the heir apparent to the infirm Lithuanian leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. On Sunday, an extreme faction of the haredi community is expected to hold a controversial rally which will show 2,000 children wearing yellow Star of David patches (a reference to the same patch Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis during World War II), to protest the aforementioned law proposal to force haredim to enlist.