A key member of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's Yamina party said Wednesday she was quitting his coalition government, in a surprise move that leaves him without a parliamentary majority.

Idit Silman's announcement left Bennett's coalition, an alliance of parties ranging from the Jewish right and Israeli doves to an Arab Muslim party, with 60 seats -- the same as the opposition.

Although Silman?s defection does not mean the fall of the coalition, it raises the spectre of a potential return to office by veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu, less than a year after he lost the premiership to Bennett.

"I tried the path of unity. I worked a lot for this coalition," Silman, a religious conservative who served as coalition chairperson, said in a statement.

"Sadly, I cannot take part in harming the Jewish identity of Israel."

On Monday, Silman lashed out at Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, after he instructed hospitals to allow leavened bread products onto their premises during the upcoming Passover holiday, in line with a recent supreme court ruling reversing years of prohibition.

Jewish tradition bars leavened bread from the public domain during Passover.

"I am ending my membership of the coalition and will try to continue to talk my friends into returning home and forming a right-wing government," Silman said.

"I know I'm not the only one who feels this way."

Bennett's coalition may continue ruling with 60 seats, although with difficulty passing new legislation.

If another member of the coalition defects, however, the Knesset could hold a vote of no confidence and lead Israel back to the polls for a fifth parliamentary election in four years.

Political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin told AFP that if Silman "is the first person to really prepare to bring down the government, she is doing it from the place of conviction".

"She is religious, and I think we all underestimate the power of theology," said Scheindlin.

In a formal resignation letter addressed to Bennett, Silman said: "We must admit that we tried. It's time to recalculate and try to form a national, Jewish, Zionist government."

There was no immediate comment from Bennett, whose Yamina party has suffered numerous splits and defections since its inception in 2019.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a recent cabinet meeting
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a recent cabinet meeting POOL via AFP / Abir SULTAN

Yamina now holds just five of parliament's 120 seats.

Following the announcement, Silman was embraced by the same right-wing politicians who had relentlessly attacked her since she followed Bennett into the governing coalition last year, reneging on campaign promises.

"Idit, you're proof that what guides you is the concern for the Jewish identity of Israel, the concern for the land of Israel, and I welcome you back home to the national camp," opposition leader Netanyahu said in a video recording.

"I call on whoever was elected with the votes of the national camp to join Idit and come back home, you'll be received with all due honour and open arms," the right-wing former prime minister added.

Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, who was in office from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 until June, had pledged to play the role of spoiler against Bennett's government which brought an end to his hold on power.

At a special session of the Knesset, which is currently in recess, Netanyahu said: "There is a weak and limp government in Israel today. Its days are numbered."

The Knesset will reconvene on May 8 to resume its legislative work.

"? won?t name any names, but there will be more defectors," Miki Zohar of Netanyahu?s Likud party told Kan public radio.

"We're in talks with more than two lawmakers who are considering coming to us," Zohar added.

To form a coalition of his own without new elections, Netanyahu would need the support of at least 61 lawmakers.

Currently he falls well short of that threshold, and does not command the support of all 60 opposition MPs. The six lawmakers of the Arab-led Joint List are fierce opponents of the former premier.

Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party, once a political partner of Bennett, predicted the ruling coalition would not survive Silman's defection.

"This is the beginning of the end of the left-wing, non-Zionist government of Bennett and the Islamist Movement," he wrote on Twitter.