A key member of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's Yamina party said Wednesday she was quitting his coalition government, in a surprise move that leaves him without a parliamentary majority.
Idit Silman's announcement left Bennett's coalition, an alliance of parties ranging from the Jewish right and Israeli doves to an Arab Muslim party, with 60 seats -- the same as the opposition.
Although Silman's defection does not mean the fall of the coalition, it raises the spectre of a potential return to office by veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu, less than a year after he lost the premiership to Bennett.
"I tried the path of unity. I worked a lot for this coalition," Silman, a religious conservative who served as coalition chairperson, said in a statement.
"Sadly, I cannot take part in harming the Jewish identity of Israel."
On Monday, Silman had lashed out at Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, after he instructed hospitals to allow leavened bread products onto their premises during the upcoming Passover holiday, in line with a recent supreme court ruling reversing years of prohibition.
Jewish tradition bars leavened bread from the public domain during Passover.
"I am ending my membership of the coalition and will try to continue to talk my friends into returning home and forming a right-wing government," Silman said.
"I know I'm not the only one who feels this way."
- 'Dangerous instability' -
Bennett met with leaders of the coalition parties following the announcement.
"All of them want to continue with the government," he said.
"The alternative is more elections," he added, warning this could spell "dangerous instability for Israel".
The most important thing now is to "stabilise" the alliance, Bennett said, accusing Netanyahu supporters of pushing Silman to quit by launching "verbal attacks" against her.
Bennett's coalition may continue ruling with 60 seats, although with difficulty in passing new legislation.
If another member of the coalition defects, however, the Knesset could hold a vote of no confidence and lead Israel back to the polls for a fifth parliamentary election in four years.
Political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin told AFP that if Silman "is the first person to really prepare to bring down the government, she is doing it from the place of conviction".
"She is religious, and I think we all underestimate the power of theology," said Scheindlin.
In a formal resignation letter, Silman said: "We must admit that we tried. It's time to recalculate and try to form a national, Jewish, Zionist government."
- 'Limp government' -
Following the announcement, Silman was embraced by the same right-wing politicians who had relentlessly attacked her since she followed Bennett into the governing coalition last year, reneging on campaign promises.
"Idit, you're proof that what guides you is the concern for the Jewish identity of Israel, the concern for the land of Israel, and I welcome you back home to the national camp," opposition leader Netanyahu said in a video recording.
"I call on whoever was elected with the votes of the national camp to join Idit and come back home, you'll be received with all due honour and open arms," he added.
Thousands of Netanyahu supporters gathered Wednesday evening in Jerusalem, shouting "Bennett, out" and demanding an end to the coalition government, AFP journalists said.
"Tonight, we say to the government one thing: leave," Netanyahu told the crowd.
Israel's longest-serving prime minister -- in office from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 until June -- Netanyahu had pledged to play the role of spoiler against Bennett's government, which brought an end to his hold on power.
At a special session of the Knesset, he said: "There is a weak and limp government in Israel today. Its days are numbered."
The Knesset is in recess and will reconvene on May 8 for legislative work.
"I won't name any names, but there will be more defectors," Miki Zohar of Netanyahu's Likud party told Kan public radio.
"We're in talks with more than two lawmakers who are considering coming to us," Zohar added.
To form a coalition of his own without new elections, Netanyahu would need the support of at least 61 lawmakers.
Currently he falls well short, and does not command the support of all 60 opposition MPs.
The six lawmakers of the Arab-led Joint List are fierce opponents of the former premier.
Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party, once a political partner of Bennett, predicted the ruling coalition would not survive Silman's defection.
"This is the beginning of the end of the left-wing, non-Zionist government of Bennett and the Islamist Movement," he wrote on Twitter.