The motions against his shaky coalition did not pass on Monday because small dovish factions decided not to be involved in bringing down Sharon, saying his plan to withdraw settlers and soldiers from occupied Gaza next year was paramount.

Sharon scraped by 46-45 in the first vote while losing 51-49 and 50-47 in the second and third votes, but these fell short of the minimum 61-seat majority required to topple him.

Spreading poverty

Sponsors of the no-confidence motions contended that poverty had spread in Israel because of free-market reforms and public-sector cutbacks pushed by former prime minister and current Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But a coalition crisis worsened when Sharon's main partner, the secular-rights Shinui party, threatened earlier in the day to resign over funding he promised to one religious faction in exchange for votes critical to passing the 2005 state budget.

Its first reading was set for Wednesday.

If the budget is not enacted by 31 March, Sharon would be unseated and early elections would be held, delaying the Gaza plan.