Israeli Coalition Talks Resume

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's president on Wednesday signaled he would move quickly to task a new candidate with forming a government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to do so ahead of a midnight deadline.

Netanyahu's political future was thrown into question when he failed to assemble a ruling coalition in the four weeks allotted to him. That raised the possibility that his 12-year run as prime minister -- the longest in Israeli history -- could soon come to an end. It follows more than two years of political paralysis.

"It looks like, perhaps within a few days or a few weeks, we might have a functioning coalition that will not include Mr. Netanyahu. This will be a groundbreaking change," said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank.

He acknowledged, however, that "a fifth consecutive election is still, unfortunately, a real possibility."

President Reuven Rivlin, who occupies a mostly ceremonial role, is expected in the coming days to give one of Netanyahu's opponents a chance to form an alternative coalition government. He also could ask the parliament to select one of its own members as prime minister. If all else fails, the country would be forced into another election this fall -- the fifth in just over two years.

Rivlin met with the two main candidates for forming a government -- opposition leader Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally -- and asked parties to make their positions known before 2 p.m. (1100 GMT).

Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party, received the backing of four smaller parties from across the political spectrum, while Bennett, head of the small nationalist and religious Yamina party, recommended himself to form the next government.

Rivlin was expected to make a decision by the end of the day.

Elections held March 23 ended in deadlock for the fourth consecutive time in the past two years. Despite repeated meetings with many of his rivals and unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party, Netanyahu was unable to close a deal.

Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first chance to form a coalition after 52 members of parliament endorsed him as prime minister last month. That was short of a majority, but the highest number for any party leader.

During Wednesday's consultations, the 52-member pro-Netanyahu bloc asked Rivlin not to give another candidate a chance to form a government and instead send the matter directly to parliament.

In a statement, Likud claimed there was no viable combination for an alternative coalition and that prolonging the negotiating process was a waste of time. Moving straight to parliament, it said, "will save another period of uncertainty for the state of Israel."

Despite the Likud's plea, Lapid, who received the backing of 45 lawmakers, now seems to be the most likely candidate to get a chance to form a government. Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally turned rival, controls just seven seats in parliament, but he has emerged as a kingmaker of sorts by carrying the votes Lapid would need to secure a parliamentary majority.

Lapid has said he is ready to share the prime minister's job with Bennett, with Bennett serving first in a rotation. But they have not reached any firm agreements. The parties opposed to Netanyahu represent a wide range of conflicting ideologies, making it unclear whether they will be able to unite.

"Players from the right wing, from the center, from the left will have to build a common agenda," Plesner said. "Their strong driving force would be to stay in government to ensure that Netanyahu is out and that the affairs of state are properly run."

Netanyahu has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, with the last four elections all seen as a referendum on his rule. He has been desperate to remain in office while he stands trial, using his position to lash out at prosecutors and seek possible immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and bribery in a series of scandals. The trial has moved into the witness phase, with embarrassing testimony accusing him of trading favors with a powerful media mogul. Netanyahu denies the charges, accusing law enforcement, the judiciary and the media of waging a "witch hunt" against him.