LABOR Party leader Shimon Peres's bid to form a new coalition government unraveled April 11 after two members of an ultra-Orthodox religious party reversed themselves and defected at the last minute. The dramatic turnaround came as the Knesset (parliament) convened for a vote of confidence on the proposed Labor-led government, which Mr. Peres said would make peace negotiations with Palestinians its top priority.
Peres was expected to ask President Chaim Herzog for more time to forge a coalition. Mr. Herzog is empowered to grant a three-week extension. Labor sources who demanded anonymity said Peres needed an extra two days to give the allied ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel religious party time to replace or bring into line the defectors, Avraham Verdiger and Eliezer Mizrahi.
The defectors oppose a government that depends on Arab members of parliament for support and also reject the return of occupied land in exchange for peace.
In this predominantly secular country, Agudat Israel and other small religious parties hold disproportionate sway by virtue of the split between the country's two major forces - Labor and the right-wing Likud bloc. In recent days, people have staged mass rallies and hunger strikes demanding electoral reform, such as direct election of the prime minister.
The protests targeted both Labor and its right-wing rival, the Likud bloc of caretaker Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who have been criticized for trying to lure defectors with offers of Cabinet posts, safe parliament seats, and government funds for religious institutions.
Mr. Mizrahi said that as an act of conscience he would oppose a Labor-led government despite his party's decision to accept Peres.
``For the peace and safety of the 3 million Jews of this country, I oppose the government,'' said Mizrahi.
Mr. Verdiger announced his resignation from parliament.
Herzog could ignore Peres's request and give the task of forming a new government to another member of parliament. He could choose either someone else in Labor or Shamir, who lost a no-confidence vote in parliament on March 15.
After weeks of wheeling and dealing, Peres told a party meeting April 10 that he had formed a coalition that would have a 61 to 59 majority in the 120-seat Knesset. But when the parliament convened, Peres experienced a major embarrassment, with his majority evaporating. The revolt by the religious members apparently followed consultations with leading rabbis.