Israel on verge of election rerun
JERUSALEM - Israelis faced the increasing likelihood Wednesday of a new vote just months after an April election, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition talks deadlocked hours ahead of a midnight deadline.
Netanyahu's failure to reach a coalition deal has seen him shift in a matter of weeks from victory celebrations to tense, behind-the-scenes efforts to ensure his long tenure in power continues even if a repeat election is required.
Confronted with the seeming impossibility of forming the coalition he is seeking, Netanyahu has turned his efforts in recent days towards pushing for new elections as an alternative if Wednesday's deadline approaches without an agreement.
Doing so could prevent Netanyahu's nightmare scenario of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin selecting another parliament member to try to form a government.
Holding elections so close to one another would be unprecedented for Israel, but the stakes could not be much higher for the 69-year-old premier.
He is facing possible indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the months ahead and is reportedly seeking legislation in the new parliament that would result in him being granted immunity.
Netanyahu is also on track to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister in July, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion, and he is no doubt aware of the weighty milestone.
But his efforts to form a new coalition have hit a brick wall, despite the alliance of right-wing and religious factions led by his Likud party winning a majority of 65 seats out of 120 in the April 9 general election.
Ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman has prevented an agreement by refusing to abandon a key demand and his nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party's five seats are just enough to torment Netanyahu.
Lieberman wants legislation he supports aimed at having ultra-Orthodox Jews perform mandatory military service like other Jewish Israelis to be approved without changes.
The issue of Ultra-Orthodox men's exemption from is a source of resentment among other Jewish Israelis. Ultra-Orthodox parties consider conscription a taboo, fearing that military service will distract from their religious observance and encourage secularism within the Orthodox community.
The issue is highly sensitive in Israel and the legislation backed by Lieberman is fiercely opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties, who control 16 seats in parliament and are a key part of Netanyahu's alliance.
Lieberman has described his refusal as a matter of principle, and in a late-night Facebook post on the eve of Wednesday's deadline reiterated his stance.
He has long championed the issue and speaks out regularly against attempts by the ultra-Orthodox to impose religious restrictions on Israeli society at large.
"I'm not vindictive. I'm not on a vendetta or seeking to bring down the prime minister," he said.
"We have no intention to give up our principles and the commitments we gave our voters."
Netanyahu has sought to publicly pressure Lieberman to compromise, saying there was no reason to drag the country to costly "unnecessary elections."
But while the prime minister has placed full blame on Lieberman, others have pointed to Netanyahu's legal troubles as an obstacle.
The main opposition Blue and White, a centrist alliance involving several former military chiefs, says a unity deal with Likud would be possible if Netanyahu would allow someone else from his party to form a government.
Blue and White's leaders say they cannot join a government led by Netanyahu due to the corruption allegations he faces, and the premier is seen as wanting partners willing to support legislation that could result in his immunity.
There has so far been no sign that Likud members would be willing to turn against Netanyahu.
Parliament has already taken initial steps toward provoking new elections and could vote to dissolve itself later Wednesday.
While new elections are emerging as the most likely path, there are other options.
If a deal is not reached by the deadline, Rivlin could give Netanyahu another two weeks if he concludes the premier is the only person capable of forming a government.
Alternatively, Rivlin could ask another member of parliament to take on the task.
Netanyahu could also seek to form a minority government.