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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is concerned Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman may resign from the coalition when final-status negotiations with the Palestinians begin, he reportedly told associates before leaving for Annapolis. Olmert's bureau is concerned that if Yisrael Beiteinu bolts the coalition, Shas will be unable to withstand pressure from the right and will also resign.

At present, the Shas leadership is divided over whether to stay put or leave the government: Shas officials told Haaretz that the party chairman, Industry, Trade and Employment Minister Eli Yishai, is leaning toward resignation, while the party's number 2, Ariel Atias, opposes the move as long as Israel-Palestinian talks have not moved ahead.

In the context of the concerns in Olmert's bureau, Minister without Portfolio Ami Ayalon (Labor) met yesterday with Shas' spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at Yosef's home in Jerusalem. Ayalon, who has become fairly close to Olmert since joining the cabinet two months ago, asked Yosef not to pull Shas out of the coalition if Yisrael Beiteinu bolts. Ayalon told Yosef that a failed diplomatic process would be very dangerous for Israel and the region. He also told the rabbi that if a coalition crisis did ensue, he expected Shas to "act responsibly" and maintain stability in the coalition.

Yosef listened to Ayalon but did not respond.

Last week, Lieberman said that his faction would decide on its moves in the weeks following the Annapolis summit, in keeping with developments in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Sources in Kadima said yesterday that Lieberman's resignation would not result in immediate shock waves in the coalition. "If Lieberman resigns because of talks between Israel and the Palestinians, there's always the possibility of bringing in Meretz. Meretz will find it hard to say no, because after all it is the party of peace," the Kadima source said.