The leftist Israeli party Meretz pulled out of the governing coalition Wednesday to show its rejection of a plan for resolving the crisis with another coalition member, public radio reported.
Education minister Yossi Sarid, trade and industry minister, Ran Cohen, and agriculture minister, Haim Oron, handed their letters of resignation to Prime Minister Ehud Barak at his Tel Aviv area home.
Zehava Gal-On, leader of the Meretz members of parliament, said: "We are ready to pay the price out of a sense of responsibility toward the government and the person who heads it, and toward peace.
Sarid told reporters after leaving Barak's home that he had told him "the resignation was for the good of the coalition." He has said previously he was ready to leave the government but continue to support its peace process initiatives.
"We can't make new concessions to Shas, but we don't want to throw a monkey wrench (spanner) into the works of the peace process, and we take responsibility for the government's fall," Meretz leader Sarid said after his party's 10 members of parliament made the decision earlier Wednesday.
The withdrawal of both Meretz and the ultra-orthodox Jewish party Shas would bring down the government. Without them, Barak's coalition would hold only 43 of the Knesset's 120 seats and have only 24 ministers.
On Tuesday, Shas, which has 17 MPs, resigned effective Thursday afternoon. Its withdrawal alone would have left Barak with a minority government after only 11 months in power.
However, Barak's representatives and Shas leaders were continuing their negotiations Wednesday to try to reach a compromise.
Barak's office issued a statement saying "the prime minister is sorry that we have come to the resignation of the ministers of Meretz, a party he continues to consider a natural partner and traveling companion.
The Meretz resignations will take effect 48 hours after they were submitted, in accordance with Israeli law.
Gal-On said earlier that "we don't agree that the crisis should be resolved at the expense of Yossi Sarid, by stripping him of control over Shas's educational network and entrusting it to a new authority." Sarid is Shas's bete noire.
The government's political troubles erupted two weeks ago after Shas and two other right wing and religious parties in Barak's coalition sided with the opposition in a parliamentary vote backing early elections.
Shas upped the stakes Tuesday demanding the preservation of the biblical lands of Israel -- suggesting its opposition to further West Bank land transfers to the Palestinians.
The statement issued by Barak's office said: "The parties must compromise to allow for progress in the peace process."
Barak himself insisted Wednesday in Haifa that "nothing, no problem of such and such party, will stop us. To advance the process to conclude accords with the Palestinians is more important than any partisan issue."
Barak said on Tuesday he was seeking to form the "widest possible" government and wanted Shas to stay, although he insisted he would not bow to "coercion" and said 90 percent of the problems had been resolved.
Shas has also been demanding about eight million dollars to prop up its schools network and for the legalization of its pirate radio stations.
The Israeli media has been packed with speculation of possible scenarios for a new Barak government, with some suggesting a narrow coalition of mainly left-wing secular parties with the backing of 10 Arab lawmakers or a national unity government including the right-wing opposition Likud bloc - OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)