Jerusalem With stunning speed, Prime Minister Ehud Barak's painstakingly constructed coalition government collapsed around him Sunday, threatening his ability both to govern and to make peace on the eve of a high-stakes summit with the Palestinians.
Three right-wing parties, including Barak's biggest coalition partner, Shas, announced they were leaving the government, all fearful that Barak would go too far in his concessions to the Palestinians at the Camp David summit due to begin Tuesday.
What's more, Barak's foreign minister, David Levy, said he would boycott the summit because he felt the Palestinians were not showing enough flexibility. The decision by Levy, formerly of the right-wing Likud party, was seen as a symbolic blow to Barak because the fiery minister has often been a good barometer of public sentiment.
Barak was defiant and angry in an evening address to the nation, tossing aside opposition calls for him to remain home.
"None of these rejectionists will teach me how to defend Israel and its future," he thundered, appealing directly to the people who elected him a year ago -- people he is convinced still support his quest for peace.
"No one will teach me what security is. I must distance myself from all the political controversies and party considerations to find the way to peace that will end the conflict of blood between ourselves and our neighbors."
The day began with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident still seen by some as a moral force in Israel, withdrawing his Yisrael B'Aliya party from the coalition, as he had threatened last week.
Then came Shas' announcement, followed quickly by a similar statement from the National Religious Party, which supports settlers in the West Bank and opposes all land concessions to the Palestinians.
"We expect to be genuine partners on the way (to peace)," said Eli Ishai, the Shas party chairman. "But we need to know the way. We don't know the way."
Technically, resignations don't take effect for 48 hours, and Shas has threatened to bolt time and again, only to be reeled back in by last-minute concessions from Barak. But this time, with the prime minister leaving the country today, his options appeared limited.
And though it seemed Barak's problems couldn't get any worse, opponents had scheduled three no-confidence votes for today in the parliament. Barak's office said he would delay his flight to the United States to attend the late-afternoon session.
Under Israel's political system, a prime minister can govern indefinitely with a minority in parliament, though it seriously weakens his authority. If the three parties do not reverse their decisions, Barak will control only about a third of 120 seats in the Knesset.
But if a no-confidence motion passes by a simple majority of 61 votes, Barak's government would fall, forcing new elections.