Netanyahu and Mofaz shake hands after forming a new coalition government in Jerusalem on May 8, 2012
How times have changed: Netanyahu and Mofaz shake hands after forming a new coalition government in Jerusalem on May 8, 2012. Photo by AP
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Emil Salman
Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner Photo by Emil Salman

As Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner announced on Wednesday the recommendations of the committee he headed which examined alternatives for mandatory military or civilian service for ultra-Orthodox men and Israeli Arabs, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scrambled to find a formula that would keep his coalition together.

Netanyahu does not want Kadima to leave the coalition. Party chairman Shaul Mofaz doesn't want that either. Both have an interest in continuing to move forward, together.

If Mofaz had wanted to quit he would have done so Wednesday rather than issuing a polite and general ultimatum, threatening to quit unless the Plesner Committee's recommendations are adopted. In order to justify remaining in the government, Mofaz needs a significant accomplishment, durable goods that he can show his skeptical Knesset cohort, which is fragmenting into groups and factions.

Kadima's Knesset members will start holding negotiations soon, directly and using envoys and middlemen. For now, Netanyahu looks more worried: If Kadima leaves over the Plesner Committee, Netanyahu will come off as having given in to the ultra-Orthodox on an issue about which there is an overwhelming consensus: universal service, equal distribution of the national burden.

But if Mofaz is forced to leave the coalition he will at least have an agenda, something to run with into the next election. Something that Kadima searched for during its three and a half futile years of wandering in the desert of the opposition.

Who would have believed that a young MK from the back benches would provide the sinking, nearly submerged party with a possible lifeline?

After long hours of silence, on Wednesday night the Prime Minister's Bureau issued its response to the committee's report: "The draft dodger will not get the same reception as the service member," it said. Terrific.

The ultra-Orthodox have no problem with those who serve getting more as long as they themselves aren't penalized for choosing to study Torah. In the course of the evening Netanyahu told confidants that the bill that will be put to a Knesset vote by the end of the month "will be hard for Haredim." Hardness is subjective.

The prime minister's confidants troubled to point out that Netanyahu never expressed objections to individual economic sanctions, which are the main bone of contention between the two approaches. In other words, at the end of the day the successor to the Tal Law will contain sanctions.

That is, the topic is still open. The principle has been set. The question, as always, is the price.

In the end, everything is political. But beyond politics there is also substance. The report presented Wednesday by Plesner, who remained in the spotlight alone, is the most thorough, serious and genuine document ever written on the issue of Haredim who avoid military service, the product of long months of work that began before the committee was even appointed.

It does historic justice and ends decades of infuriating and outrageous discrimination between "blood and blood." This is undoubtedly Plesner's finest hour. It could also be Netanyahu's.