Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Prime Minister Ehud Barak lost his parliamentary majority Tuesday, as cabinet members from the second-largest party in his coalition resigned in a dispute involving school funding.
Barak's office had no immediate reaction to the development, which severely undermines his power-base at a time when difficult decisions loom in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party threatened to pull out of Barak's government one week ago, leading to days of intensive negotiations. Cabinet meetings were postponed, so the Shas ministers wouldn't have the opportunity to present their resignations - to no avail, as it turns out.
Shas spokesman Izhik Suderi confirmed that the ministers' letters had been submitted to Barak's office at mid-afternoon.
For the next 48 hours, negotiations between Shas and the government would continue, Suderi said. If the talks end "positively" the letters will be withdrawn; if not, "they will join the opposition."
But analysts said Barak's government was not necessarily doomed, even if the resignations take effect.
"Shas is playing a brinkmanship game," said political science professor Menachem Hofnung of the Hebrew University. "Probably they are trying to get the most they can get from Barak."
As the third largest faction in the 120-seat Knesset with 17 members, they wield a lot of power.
Suderi said a lot of progress had been made during the week of negotiations but Shas' demands in return for remaining in the coalition have not yet been met.
The party's main demand revolves around additional funding for its financially-strapped private school system. Education Minister Yossi Sarid, who is also leader of the liberal Meretz party, wants to put conditions on the funds.
Last night Meretz offered to quit the government and support it from the outside if that would prevent the collapse of the government. However, the offer was refused.
Earlier Barak offered to remove the Shas school system from under the authority of the Education Ministry, but that solution did not solve the problem either.
Shas is also demanding that Barak legitimizing its network of pirate radio stations. But to do so would create further headaches for Barak, as he would then be expected to license dozens of other pirate radio stations - including some virulently opposed to government policies relating to the peace process - to avoid discrimination.
Suderi said a third Shas demand centers around Barak's handling of the peace process. The faction wants "true participation" in diplomatic policy-making.
"Barak has more than one option," Hofnung said. He could also keep going with a narrow coalition in the hopes that he will be able to reach an agreement with the PA. "That means elections in 2001 - he can't rule with a narrow coalition for a long time."
But to reach an agreement with the PA, Hofnung said, Barak's best chance to assure sufficient parliamentary support is to maintain the current coalition.
If Shas leaves the coalition, its lawmakers will vote against a peace agreement, he predicted. For Barak to be able to claim legitimacy for a deal with the PA, it will be to his advantage to have as wide a Jewish majority backing the agreement as possible - rather than have to rely on Arab parties for support.
Barak's problems have been exacerbated by a relatively new which provides for direct election of Israel's prime ministers.
His predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, was the first to be directly elected. The results of that election shocked proponents of the reform.
Having voted for their choice for premier, voters used their second - party - vote to back smaller parties with narrower platforms and policies. The large parties lost support to a wide range of initially smaller ones, and this fragmentation made it extremely difficult for the prime minister to form a workable coalition.
Barak had to increase the number of ministers in his cabinet in order to dole out enough positions to put together a coalition.
Without getting rid of the law, Hofnung said, successive elections would likely have the same results.
Netanyahu's government fell after two-and-a-half years. After less than a year, Barak's government seems to be heading for the same fate.
See Earlier Story:
Barak's Ruling Coalition Fragments (13 June 2000)