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In this March 24, 2021, file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after the first exit poll results for the Israeli parliamentary elections at his Likud party's headquarters in Jerusalem. Netanyahu missed a midnight deadline for putting together a new coalition government. Image Credit: AP

Tel Aviv: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government by a midnight Tuesday deadline, giving a motley camp of rivals an opportunity to join forces to oust him - or send the country headlong into a fifth election.

The March 23 election - the fourth in two years - gave neither Netanyahu nor his opponents a clear path to building a coalition. President Reuven Rivlin offered the prime minister, who’s facing trial in three corruption cases, the first crack last month after a plurality of lawmakers nominated him.

For four weeks, Netanyahu unsuccessfully toiled to woo rivals into an alliance and drive wedges within the opposition, but just before midnight he returned the mandate to Rivlin. The political turmoil is rocking the country at a time when tensions are escalating with Iran and its proxies, and high unemployment hasn’t been vanquished by an aggressive coronavirus vaccination campaign.

Rivlin now has three days to either tap the head of another party to try to build a governing coalition, or ask parliament to nominate one of its members - even Netanyahu - to patch together an administration. If the president opts for that first route, the leading contenders appear to be former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party is parliament’s second-largest, and former Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the predominantly religious nationalist Yamina party, who hasn’t ruled out sitting with Netanyahu and whose support is imperative for any government to rise.

Rivlin plans to meet with both Bennett and Lapid on Wednesday morning, and will schedule additional meetings according to requests from party heads, and at the president’s discretion, his office said.

The rival bloc’s common agenda is to topple Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, whose efforts to stop his graft trial have been closely linked to Israel’s political tumult. But wildly divergent agendas and personal ambitions could make it tough for them to partner in government.

Minority coalition

The camp is a mix of religious, secular, Zionist and anti-Zionist lawmakers, as well as opponents and proponents of Palestinian statehood. It includes Arab parties, which historically have not joined Zionist-led governments but could agree to support a minority coalition in parliamentary votes, as happened in the 1990s to foster peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Throughout this election cycle, Netanyahu has had the option of stepping aside to let someone else head his Likud party’s ticket, which could have facilitated the formation of a government long ago. Various parties would have been willing to sit in a Likud-led government if not headed by the legally embattled Netanyahu.

But remaining in power is Netanyahu’s only hope for derailing his trial, by offering an opportunity to enact legislation shielding an incumbent leader from prosecution. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and maintains he is the victim of a political witch hunt.