Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, suffered a massive blow to his project to withdraw from settlements in the Gaza Strip last night when his party refused to allow him to invite new partners into the government who might have backed his plans. Party rebels won key ballots at a convention, with about 60% voting in favour of a motion to prevent Mr Sharon introducing the Labour party into the Likud-led government.
The result is not binding, and Mr Sharon vowed before the voting of the Likud central committee that he would plough ahead regardless.
"Likud will not disqualify or boycott anyone," he told party members, as hecklers chanted, "yes to Likud, no to Labour".
He continued: "The Likud will conduct negotiations with all Zionist parties for expanding the coalition."
But the latest rebuff comes after the wider party voted in a referendum in May against dismantling settlements in Gaza, and observers are now wondering if the prime minister can continue to lead his divided party.
Dalia Itzik, a spokeswoman for the Labour party, said new elections were all but inevitable as Mr Sharon would emerge from the vote a "lame duck prime minister".
In his pre-vote speech, Mr Sharon had tried to harness the spirits of past leaders of the Israeli right wing.
"You must make your voices heard loud and strong, a national and responsible voice, like the voice of Menachem Begin who prevented a civil war on the eve of Israel's establishment and who led to unity on the eve of the six day war ... Israel is waiting for that," he said.
The prime minister, who, more than anyone, has made the right a force in Israel, was rejected by the party he helped create. He can continue to govern but without the moral authority to do anything but manage the country.
The debate in the Likud party has also been fuelled by a series of personal and party rivalries. "Unfortunately there is a group within the party that has been plotting against the government since its establishment," Mr Sharon told the convention earlier.
Binyamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister and current finance minister, is torn in several directions. He is from the right but appreciates Jerusalem's dependence on the US and the need to create a situation in which Israel can keep the parts of the West Bank it wants.
Also, as finance minister he has introduced Thatcherite reforms anathema to Labour. Perhaps most importantly he has leadership ambitions of his own and is loth to make life easy for Mr Sharon.
Silvan Shalom, the foreign minster, has clearly identified himself with the rebels because if Labour joins the coalition it is very likely he will lose his job to Shimon Peres, the opposition leader.
And while Mr Sharon takes on his own party he is also negotiating with his current partner, Shinui, a party which has pledged never to sit in government with the ultra-orthodox groups.
The prime minister has called their bluff and started negotiating with United Torah Judaism and Shas. Both parties demand as a minimum a halt to all Shinui-inspired secular legislation such as a bill introducing civil marriages.
Behind all the manoeuvring is also the suggestion that Mr Sharon does not really want to form a government but would like to create a situation whereby he can call elections without being seen to be the cause of them.
If that is so the possibility of early elections, which most Israeli pundits suggested would occur within the year, increased last night.
According to analysts, Mr Sharon realises his divided party is no vehicle in which to attempt the withdrawal from the Gaza settlements.
To achieve this he needs to create an electoral vehicle, combining Shinui, Labour and the centre of Likud, that can draw the maximum votes from the 60% of the Israeli population that favours withdrawal not only from Gaza but from the West Bank settlements.