JERUSALEM — Israel plunged toward a political crisis Tuesday after the largest party in the government quit, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in charge of a hard-line coalition opposed to most Mideast peace moves.
The moderate Kadima party voted to pull out of the government in a feud over attempts to change the country’s military draft to include ultra-Orthodox Jews. The move, just two months after Kadima joined the coalition, appeared to push the country closer to early elections, a scenario that would paralyze Mideast diplomacy for months.
Even if Netanyahu manages to hold the truncated coalition together, the sudden crisis has broader implications for Mideast peace, leaving him in charge of a narrow parliamentary majority dominated by religious and nationalist hard-liners who oppose concessions to the Palestinians.
Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz brought the party into the coalition to work with Netanyahu on ending a contentious, decades-old system that has granted draft exemptions to tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students. But with a court-ordered Aug. 1 deadline to revise the law, 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,’’ said Mofaz, a former military chief of staff.
Mofaz said he tried to forge a ‘‘new social contract,’’ but was presented with ‘‘red lines’’ that could not be crossed. ‘‘We are going back with our heads held high to lead the nation in the opposition,’’ he declared.
Kadima is the largest party in Israel’s Parliament, winning one more seat than Netanyahu’s Likud party in the last election, but it was left outside the government when Netanyahu set up his original hard-line team three years ago.
The draft exemptions have caused widespread resentment among Israel’s secular majority, who are required to perform two to three years of compulsory service. Ultra-Orthodox leaders have been equally adamant in their refusal to compromise, contending that their young men serve the nation through prayer and study.
Netanyahu had sought a system that would gradually draft growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox over several years and continue the exemptions for a smaller number of them. Mofaz wanted fewer exemptions and wanted the ultrareligious to be incorporated much faster. The talks were complicated by calls for Israel’s Arab minority, who are also exempt from the draft, to be forced into civilian national service.
In a letter to Mofaz, Netanyahu expressed regret over Mofaz’s decision.
‘‘I am sorry that you decided to give up the opportunity to bring about a historic change. After 64 years we were very close to a significant change in spreading the burden’’ of army service, he said.
It remained unclear what would happen after Aug. 1. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that was when he would begin drafting an unspecified number of ultrareligious soldiers and propose temporary legislation until a more permanent arrangement can be made in the coming months.
Netanyahu’s government, torn between religious and secular parties, was on the brink of collapse over the draft issue when Mofaz was lured into the government in an overnight deal in May.
Kadima’s addition gave Netanyahu a majority of 94 seats in the 120-member Parliament, raising hopes that the parties would resolve the draft issue and also make progress on peace with the Palestinians.
Mofaz, a political moderate, favors broad concessions to the Palestinians and has proposed formation of an interim Palestinian state while final borders are negotiated.