The survival of Israel's ruling coalition looked in jeopardy early Tuesday with fresh threats from the powerful Shas religious party that it could quit the government within 24 hours.
Its spiritual leadership, made up of rabbis, was due to meet later Tuesday to decide on a possible split, the party said in a statement.
That followed a meeting between party leader, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Eli Ishai, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which the Shas party felt did not satisfy its demands.
The crisis facing the 11-month government had degenerated Monday into mud slinging amid intense bargaining to keep the coalition together.
Shas increased the price it wants Barak to pay for its continued support, while one of its ministers accused his chief opponent in the cabinet of behaving like a Nazi.
On Sunday, Barak backed off from threats to sack six rebel ministers from Shas and two other parties in his patchwork six-party coalition after they voted with the opposition in a parliamentary vote for early elections.
The negotiations continued ahead of a legal deadline Wednesday to determine the fate of the six ministers, with Shas now seeking more funds for its near bankrupt religious school network and other concessions.
Barak is hoping to cobble together a new government with a similar make-up to the current one, including Shas, rather than forming a narrow coalition which may need to rely on the support of Arab parties for his peace policies.
"There will either be a different government, or a government with a similar composition with completely different rules of operation," Barak told journalists during a visit to the Tel Aviv area.
He vowed that his government would press ahead with efforts to make peace with its Arab neighbors and its economic policies at home including a contested tax reform package.
"No parliamentary trick will prevent us from doing what the nation needs," he said, referring to Wednesday's Knesset vote for the dissolution of parliament.
Health Minister Shlomo Benizri of Shas drew Barak's wrath when he accused left-wing Education Minister Yossi Sarid -- who has long refused Shas's funding demands -- of using the same methods as the Nazis.
Sarid "incites hatred and delegitimizes us in the same way that the Jews were portrayed in Nazi propaganda at the time of the Holocaust," Benizri said.
Barak, who had Sunday, expressed hope that the crisis could be resolved within 24 hours, immediately issued a statement condemning the attack.
"We strongly and unreservedly condemn such comparisons which have no place in dialogue in Israel," he said.
Shas officials said the party was now not only seeking extra funding for its schools, but wants the legalization of several ultra-Orthodox pirate radio stations and a greater say in the peace process and social issues.
"We will not take part in a coalition that we reject," Benizri said. "Our vote last week was a warning, and we are ready to go all the way."
The two other parties to vote against the government were the National Religious Party, which champions the cause of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, and the Russian immigrant party Israel B'Aliya, which together have two ministers and nine seats in parliament – OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP)
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