JERUSALEM -- Israel's governing coalition came unglued yesterday when its only religious party said it would withdraw. But it was not clear whether the government turmoil was a full-blown crisis or merely a prelude to a reassignment of Cabinet posts.
Many political experts leaned toward the second theory, predicting that when the dust settles in a few days, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will still be in office, but with a different Cabinet lineup.
But if the crisis turns out to be real, Mr. Rabin will find himself politically hobbled at what may be a critical juncture in Israel's continuing peace talks in Washington with neighboring Arab nations and the Palestinians. Before the weekend, he warned that a breakup of his coalition "would be tantamount to halting the peace process."
If the leader of the religious Shas party stands firm in his announced resignation -- and that may not be known until tomorrow -- he would leave the prime minister in command of only 56 of the 120 seats in Parliament: 44 from his Labor Party and 12 from his leftist ally, the Meretz bloc.
With the six seats belonging to Shas, a Hebrew acronym for Sephardic Torah Guardians, he had an assured majority of 62.
Even without Shas, Mr. Rabin could slog on as head of a minority government, eking out a legislative majority with the support of five members of Parliament from two Arab parties outside his coalition. Aides suggested that he would choose that approach.
"One must understand that the government is not in danger," said Gad Ben-Ari, the prime minister's spokesman. Nevertheless, relying on Arab votes would be an awkward, and perhaps ultimately untenable, situation for Mr. Rabin as he tries to build a national consensus around plans to yield territory to Arabs in exchange for peace agreements.
Because of his land-for-peace offers, he is being challenged by an invigorated rightist opposition that has repeatedly demanded confidence votes in Parliament in a vain effort to topple him. It is expected to try again today, probably with no more success than before.
Some Labor Party officials said that if his political fortunes deteriorate, Mr. Rabin might go so far as to submit his resignation to Israel's president. His aim in that case would be to receive a presidential mandate to start over and rebuild the rickety center-left-religious alliance that has caused him discomfort since he formed it last July.
From the start, Mr. Rabin has wanted a more broadly based coalition, both to strengthen his parliamentary hand and to reduce the ability of a single party such as Shas to bring him down.
He also has been openly displeased with dovish Cabinet ministers, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who have spoken out in recent days about the peace settlements they would like to see with the Palestinians and Arab nations.
More immediate for him is how to keep Shas from bolting. The party's leader, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, resigned last night after his deadline had passed on a demand that Education Minister Shulamit Aloni be dismissed by yesterday. But, since Mr. Deri's resignation cannot take effect until tomorrow, there is time for maneuvering.
Mr. Rabin's aides say the solution is plain: Dump Mrs. Aloni, the Meretz leader and a committed secularist who has angered religious parties with a string of remarks on religion and Scripture that they consider offensive.