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Members of the Likud rebels asked Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin last week to join them in quitting the Likud and forming an independent Knesset faction.

By law, a splinter faction must comprise at least one-third of the MKs in the original faction. Since Likud has 40 MKs, 14 must be willing to split. And since the rebels - MKs who voted against the new government because of their opposition to the disengagement plan - currently number 13, they need Rivlin, who also opposes disengagement.

However, Rivlin refused. "You must always fight from the inside," he said. "The Likud is still alive and breathing, even if the Likud's chairman has strayed from the path."

Rivlin also urged the rebels not to vote against the 2005 budget to bring down the government. "You should vote against the budget only if you think it's a bad budget," he said.

Currently, the government has no majority for the budget, since the rebels, who supported it in first reading, say they will vote against in second and third reading unless Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agrees to a national referendum on the disengagement plan.

If the budget fails to pass by March 31, new elections will automatically take place three months later.