David Levy announced he was leaving Mr Netanyahu's coalition with the air of a man slamming the door once and for all. "I am no longer a member of the government," he said. "The partnership is over. I've had enough." Mr Levy denounced the 19-month-old government for abandoning the peace process with the Arabs and ignoring the problems of Israel's poor and unemployed.
The defection of the five MPs of Mr Levy's Gesher party reduces Mr Netanyahu's Knesset majority to the thinnest of wafers. There are now just 61 MPs on the government benches out of 120.
Mr Netanyahu also faces a simmering revolt in his own Likud ranks. Some MPs, including ministers, have said openly that they no longer trust the Prime Minister's leadership. Others are threatening to walk out if he hands any more of the biblical "Land of Israel" to the Palestinians.
The opposition Labour Party has already announced that it will bring a motion of no-confidence in parliament next week. If 61 vote against the government on a no-confidence motion, the Prime Minister must face an early election.
Mr Levy has threatened to resign five times. This time he followed through. His resignation does not come into force for 48 hours, but his condemnation of Mr Netanyahu's policies was so comprehensive that he would lose all credibility if he changed his mind again.
However, Mr Levy took care not to close doors for the future. Gesher, he said, would function as an independent party, voting for issues on their merit. It would not take the initiative to force an election. He declined to say whether he would run for prime minister. Nor did he seem in any hurry to forge a new partnership with the Labour opposition.
Last night, Mr Netanyahu vowed to soldier on "until 2000 at least". Hesaid he would serve as his own foreign minister and would pursue "a secure peace" with Palestinians. The Prime Minister said he would present the 1998 budget, which precipitated Mr Levy's decision, to a parliamentary vote today, and was confident it would pass.
The desertion of his leading dove comes at the worst of times for Mr Netanyahu. President Bill Clinton has invited him to Washington on 20 January. The Americans want to see progress in the peace process, and are no longer prepared to wait for Mr Netanyahu to settle his domestic crises first. The trouble is that, even if the Prime Minister agrees to a generous West Bank redeployment, he may now be too weak to carry it out.Reuse content