The left-of-center Labor Party and the right-wing Likud bloc deadlocked Thursday in rival efforts to form a coalition government after one of four key religious parties defected from Likud to Labor.
The move by the five-member, ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel Party gave Labor the support of 60 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset - not enough to form a government but enough to block Likud, which has the backing of 58 legislators.The balance of power now is in the hands of the undecided Torah Flag Party, which has two seats. Party leader Rabbi Avraham Ravitz said he preferred a broad-based government but didn't "rule out the possibility that Labor will form the government."
It is the latest turnaround in complicated negotiations since Nov. 1 elections in which Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud won 40 seats while Labor, led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, won 39.
At the city's Wailing Wall Thursday, ultra-Orthodox Jews shouted angrily as 100 feminists carried a Torah and held a 30-minute all-woman prayer session. They defied Orthodox rules forbidding women from carrying or reading the book of Jewish literature.
Men pounded on the fence traditionally dividing them from the women, some of whom wore prayer shawls and skullcaps traditionally worn by males.
"I protest. In the name of God I protest," shouted gray-bearded Jews as the women prayed and sang. The prayer session marked the end of the First International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem, attended by women from more than 20 countries. "They should realize that prayer isn't only for men," said Blu Greenberg of New York.
The feminists represented Reform or Conservative branches of Judaism that do not adhere to some Orthodox rules excluding women from Jewish rituals.
On Israel radio Thursday, Shamir said he still is optimistic of meeting President Chaim Herzog's request that he form a government.
Earlier this week, Shamir appeared to have firm support of 65 legislators.
But religious parties started bolting when he asked Labor to join the government, fearing Likud would break promises to them to accommodate Labor.
Political alignments were shaken again when Labor's Executive Bureau, in an apparent rebellion against its party leadership, voted Wednesday not to join a Likud-led government.