Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Prime Minister Ehud Barak no longer commands a parliamentary majority in his ruling coalition, after the 17-member Shas faction quit Barak's government Tuesday.
The move comes three months to the day before a final agreement is due to be signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and it throws into question the future of the government and Barak's ability to gain parliamentary approval for a peace deal.
"The Council of Torah Sages has told the Shas ministers and its deputies to submit resignation letters in the upcoming cabinet meeting and to quit the coalition," secretary of the Council of Torah Sages, said Rafael Pinhasi was quoted as saying.
The next scheduled cabinet meeting is Sunday and the resignation would take effect 48 hours after the letter is presented.
"The decision -- it's the last word we can say to the Prime Minister that during 11 months he didn't find the time to find a solution to solve our problems," Shas cabinet Minister Sholmo Ben-Izri said in a radio interview.
However, he said that if the Prime Minister can come up with a solution before Sunday, the party might reconsider its resignation. Ben-Izri said his faction might also support the peace process although such a move would be "very difficult."
Barak's office had no immediate reaction to the Shas decision but convened an urgent meeting of his One Israel party members.
Shas party spokesman Izhik Suderi said that Shas was leaving the government for three reasons: failure to include the Shas party in policy decisions regarding the peace process; failure to move forward on social issues; and "persecution" of the Shas educational system by the Education minister Yossi Sarid.
Liberal Meretz party leader Sarid has locked horns with Shas over its demand to receive millions of dollars in additional funding for its financially strapped private educational system. Sarid has refused to hand over the money unless the Shas system comes under the authority of the general system.
Despite the dispute, Sarid, said he was not "satisfied with the resignation." He said that they had worked hard to put the coalition government together and he was not glad that Shas had decided to resign.
Earlier on Tuesday, Interior Minister Natan Sharansky - who also voted against the government last week - called for a national unity government in a radio interview.
But the largest opposition faction, the Likud, dismissed the possibility.
There is no way the Likud party will join a national unity government, party chairman Ariel Sharon said in television interview.
The Likud is "making every effort to cut short the days of Barak's government," Sharon said. Sharon praised the decision of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as "courageous."
A week ago, the Shas party and two other coalition members voted against the government in an opposition-sponsored bill to dissolve the current Knesset and call for early elections.
The bill passed its first reading with an overwhelming majority and moved to the law committee. It must pass three additional readings in the Knesset before early elections would be called, but analysts said it spelled the beginning of the end for Barak's government.
Barak announced prior to the vote that he would likely invoke the law of transition, allowing him to fire any minister who voted against the government. Although he did not do so, he gave Shas a week to decide if it would stay in the government.
The prime minister said at the time that he did not favor forming a new, narrow coalition government to replace his 68-52 majority in the 120-seat Knesset. A narrow coalition would mean Barak would have to rely on outside support from 10 Arab Knesset members for crucial votes like the peace process.
Instead, he said, he would form a new government, which would look similar to this one but would have "new rules."
Barak's 11-month-old government - composed of parties across the political spectrum - has been plagued by coalition crises almost since the beginning.