Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday took back his threat to withdraw from the governing Likud Party, but a minority religious party quit Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition in protest over the plan to remove Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank.
Netanyahu, Sharon's rival and a former prime minister, had said two weeks ago that he would resign unless Sharon agreed to hold a national referendum on the pullout plan.
The decision by the National Religious Party (NRP) to pull out of the government left Sharon with 55 seats in Israel's 120-member parliament, the Knesset, six votes less than a majority. Sharon's two-party coalition now comprises Likud, with 40 members, and the secular Shinui Party, with 15 members.
Sharon has survived 60 no-confidence votes in the past 11 months, and is expected to retain power with the help of other minority parties that have voted in favor of his program.
"In Israel, with so many diverse interests, to have a minority government is very difficult," said Dani Koren, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. But with deep divisions over the budget, the disengagement plan and religious issues, Koren said, "the majority in the opposition is not united," and some minority parties have promised to give Sharon a "safety net" to ensure that his government does not fall, as long as he continues pushing his Gaza withdrawal.
"This government has got the confidence of the Knesset," based on parliament's 67 to 45 vote in favor of the disengagement plan on Oct. 26, Koren said. "So you have to figure they're not going to topple the government as long as it carries on with the program."
Netanyahu and three ministers from the NRP -- the smallest member of Sharon's three-party coalition, with six seats in the Knesset -- had given Sharon an ultimatum that they would leave the government by Tuesday if he did not agree to a national referendum.
"We don't have an ideological reason for leaving the government; the purpose is to stop the disengagement," Nissan Slomiansky, chairman of the NRP's Knesset faction, said in an interview. "We have reached the conclusion that there is no other way to stop" Sharon, Slomiansky said.
Sharon has opposed a referendum, calling it a delaying tactic intended to kill his proposal. Under the disengagement plan to begin next year, Israel would shut down Gaza's 21 Jewish settlements and remove about 8,150 settlers in addition to Israeli troops stationed there. Four settlements with about 470 residents in the northern West Bank -- Ganim, Kadim, Sa-Nur and Homesh -- also would be disbanded.
Netanyahu's decision to remain in the government temporarily cooled an anti-Sharon rebellion that threatened to split Likud. The three other Likud cabinet ministers who had threatened to resign backed down more than a week ago.