Israel's 19-month-old coalition government broke apart Wednesday -- after the Labor Party leader and other Labor ministers resigned in a dispute over funding for Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer -- the Labor Party leader and main partner in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government -- submitted his resignation after a stormy three-hour negotating session with Mr. Sharon. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and other cabinet ministers of the Labor Party also handed in their resignations, which take effect Friday.
Mr. Ben-Eliezer wanted Mr. Sharon to cut 145-million dollars for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The money was part of next year's budget, which Israel's parliament passed late Wednesday by a vote of 67 to 45 despite opposition from the Labor Party.
Israel now appears headed for early elections, possibly within 90 days. The scheduled vote is in November, 2003. Prime Minister Sharon can continue governing with a narrow coalition that relies on small far-right factions, but analysts say that situation may not work. The break-up could also hurt U-S efforts to win support for a peace plan that sees a Palestinian state by 2003.
The political developments come as violence continues. A Palestinian gunman shot and killed three Jewish settlers -- including two teenage girls -- in the West Bank settlement of Hermesh late Tuesday, before being shot to death by soldiers. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack.
On Tuesday, Palestinian lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a new cabinet proposed by Mr. Arafat, who said he remains committed to reforming the Palestinian Authority.
The Associated Press Tuesday quoted the new Palestinian security chief as saying he will bring the different security services under unified control in an effort to prevent attacks on Israeli civilians.
U-S officials say they are not impressed with the new Palestinian cabinet, adding action toward reform is what matters. The United States and Israel have been demanding Palestinian political, judicial and security reforms as conditions for reviving the peace process.