JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ehud Barak's largest government partner announced yesterday that it will quit the ruling coalition, a step that could cripple his administration as it fights a move for early elections and enters a crucial stretch of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party have made this threat before. They insisted yesterday that they mean it this time - but also invited further talks with Barak.
If they do leave the 11-month-old government, it will rob Barak of his majority in parliament and endanger his political survival.
With only three months to go before a final peace deal with the Palestinians is due, and while legislation to force early elections is pending, Barak would have to put together a new coalition. He may be stuck with a narrow - and weak - government that relies on small or minority Arab parties to pass difficult legislation.
A showdown between Shas and Barak has been percolating for weeks.
The increasingly powerful party that represents Sephardic Jews - those of Middle Eastern and North African origin - is demanding millions of dollars from the government for its separate, religious school system. Shas also wants its string of pirate and sometimes confrontational radio stations to be legalized.
Barak seemed inclined to give in to some of the party's demands, but only after it agreed to withdraw support for the bill that would force early elections and essentially topple his government. In an insurrectionist move last week, Shas was instrumental in securing initial legislative approval for the bill.
Barak met with Shas Party leader Eli Yishai late Monday in hopes of striking a deal. But there was no agreement.
Yesterday, Shas' rabbinical advisers, the Council of Torah Sages led by spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ordered the party to quit the government.
Shas holds 17 seats in the 120-member parliament and heads the ministries of health, infrastructure, labor and religious affairs. Without Shas, Barak's coalition has only 51 seats in the Knesset.
"For 11 months Barak didn't find the time to find a solution for our problems," said Health Minister Shlomo Benizri of the Shas. "For now, this decision [to quit] is absolute. ... I think we are going to elections very, very soon."
While insisting their decision was final, Shas officials seemed to leave wiggle room, saying they were not averse to hearing additional offers from Barak.
The prime minister, meanwhile, called an urgent meeting of his loyal Cabinet ministers to determine what action he will take. They authorized him to enact a clause that permits him to fire rebellious ministers in two weeks' time.
Shas said it will hand in its resignations at the next Cabinet meeting, which is scheduled for Sunday.
The Shas Party has a history of corruption and scandal; its last chairman awaits a prison term for embezzling money.
Yet successive Israeli governments, right and left, have sought to include Shas because it can deliver votes.
Shas also has been valued by some for its willingness to support peace deals with the nation's Arab neighbors.
Some Israelis, however, have grown weary of Shas' demands.
There were suggestions that Shas was merely upping the ante and would ultimately stay in the Barak government because it could not afford to give up its budget and perks.