December 30, 2014 / 7:23 PM / in 3 years

Head of religious party in Israel resigns before election

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The leader of Israel's largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish party resigned from parliament on Tuesday, throwing the faction into crisis and adding another twist in the run-up to an election on March 17.

The Shas party - which transformed an Israeli underclass of Sephardic Jews of Middle East heritage into a powerful political force - has been a kingmaker of coalition governments for years, though it currently sits in the opposition with just 11 of the 120 seats in parliament.

Shas has been torn by rivalries since the death of its founder, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in October 2013. After party head Aryeh Deri handed in his resignation letter, most other Shas lawmakers said they would follow suit.

The move added another degree of uncertainty to an already complicated electoral picture in which a center-left bloc is neck-in-neck in opinion polls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party.

Post-election coalition deals will determine who will lead the country, and parties like Shas will play a key role.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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