JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a botched attempt to fragment Israel's main opposition party on Monday by wooing some of its lawmakers to rejoin his governing coalition just days after the bloc bolted his coalition.
But the maneuver failed after he managed to win over only four Kadima Party lawmakers, leaving him with a relatively fragile majority that could be hard-pressed to survive challenges like a contentious court-ordered reform of the military draft and the 2013 budget.
Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz asked parliament's permission to expel the four would-be defectors from the party's parliamentary faction. "Anyone who wants to receive political bribery -- junior positions in a bloated government -- and sell out his values" should leave, he fumed.
Netanyahu, who had tried unsuccessfully in the past to split Kadima, needed to recruit at least seven defectors, the minimum number required under Israeli law to split from an existing party to create a new parliamentary faction.
In a day filled with political drama, Netanyahu looked well-positioned early Monday to shore up his government, which now commands just 66 of parliament's 120 seats after Kadima pulled its 28 lawmakers out of the coalition last week. Mofaz spokesman Imri Mazor said six lawmakers had agreed to team up with Netanyahu, though two apparently had not reached an agreement with Netanyahu on Cabinet-level jobs.
But the tables turned abruptly late morning when one of the reported breakaways told Israel Radio he had not signed an agreement and would not join a splinter party. From that point on, efforts to recruit the requisite number of lawmakers appeared doomed.
A broader coalition could have reduced the possibility of the government dissolving over the draft reform and the 2013 budget.
Mofaz entered Netanyahu's coalition in a surprise hookup in May, in part to try to end decades of draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. But with a court-ordered Aug. 1 draft reform deadline looming and with Netanyahu's government looking unlikely to push as thorough an overhaul to the system as Kadima would like, the sides failed to reach a compromise and Kadima quit the government last Tuesday.
Mofaz was still steaming Monday over Netanyahu's unwillingness to bring most ultra-Orthodox men into the military.
"We won't allow the prime minister to legitimize the scandalous draft-dodging through political bribery and gift-giving," he told a hastily convened news conference.
Kadima is the largest party in Israel's parliament, winning one more seat than Netanyahu's Likud Party in the last election in February 2009. But it rejected his invitation to join the hardline government he set up then, because then-leader Tzipi Livni concluded he was not seriously interested in seeking peace with the Palestinians.
Peacemaking has languished in the three years since Netanyahu took power, with Palestinians refusing to return to the negotiating table unless he freezes all construction on occupied lands they seek for a future state. Netanyahu accuses the Palestinians of being obstructionist and says the fate of settlements must be decided in negotiations.
In the meantime, the Israeli prime minister has focused his diplomatic energies on warning the world against Iran's nuclear program, dismissing Tehran's claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Netanyahu maintains a nuclear-armed Tehran is a threat to the Jewish state's survival and says Israel will do whatever necessary to stop Iran from building atomic bombs, including a military strike on Iran.
Critics of military action, including former high-ranking Israeli security officials, say a strike threatens to set off a regional war without significantly setting back the Iranian program.
Israel is also contemplating an attack in neighboring Syria, where a ferocious, 17-month-old uprising has made President Bashar Assad's hold on power increasingly tenuous. Israel is afraid that the collapse of a central government in Syria would allow militants affiliated with Lebanon's Hezbollah group or the Al Qaeda terror network to raid Syrian military arsenals for chemicals weapons or missiles that could be turned against Israel. It is weighing a strike against those arsenals to prevent this.
On Sunday, Netanyahu warned on U.S. news shows that Israel would "have to act" if the Syrian regime collapses and there's a risk militants could put their hands on such weapons.