Jerusalem (AFP) -
Israeli politicians scrambling to unseat veteran right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were locked in last-ditch talks on Wednesday to hammer out their 'change' coalition composed of bitter ideological rivals.
But as a midnight deadline approached, negotiations hit an impasse, with one source telling AFP that the multi-party talks in a hotel near Tel Aviv were 'stuck' and questioning whether a viable alliance would be agreed in time.
Netanyahu's opponents have until the end of the day -- 11:59 pm (2059 GMT) -- to cobble together an administration that would end 12 straight years of rule by the hawkish political heavyweight, Israel's longest-ruling premier.
The high-stakes push for a new government is led by former television presenter Yair Lapid, a secular centrist who three days earlier won the crucial support of hardline religious nationalist Naftali Bennett.
Lapid has reportedly agreed to allow Bennett, a 49-year-old tech multi-millionaire, to serve first as prime minister before swapping with him after two years, halfway through their term.
To reach a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, the unlikely alliance would also have to include several other left and right-wing parties -- and would need the support of Arab-Israeli politicians.
That would result in a government riven by deep differences on flashpoint issues, such as Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the role of religion in politics.
If no agreement is reached on a government by the end of Wednesday, Israel risks heading back to the polls for a fifth general election in just over two years.
- Down to the wire -
As the deadline approached, talks were 'stuck', the source close to the negotiations told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
One bone of contention the composition of Israel's committee to appoint judges, another hurdle was reaching a deal with Islamic conservative lawmakers.
Lapid is counting on backing from parties representing Arab Israelis, the country's 20 percent minority of Palestinian descent.
A separate source told AFP that Mansour Abbas, head of the four-seat Islamic conservative Raam party, was conditioning his support on becoming deputy interior minister, a key position which would give him control over municipalities and local councils.
In order to build the anti-Netanyahu bloc, Lapid must sign individual agreements with seven parties.
They include the hawkish New Hope party of Netanyahu's former ally Gideon Saar, and right-wing secular nationalist Avigdor Lieberman's pro-settlement Yisrael Beitenu party.
Also part of the alliance would be the centrist Blue and White party of Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the historically powerful Labor party and the dovish Meretz party.
Lapid, Abbas and Bennett were holding a last-minute meeting at the hotel near Tel Aviv where the bulk of talks took place, in an attempt to reach understandings that would enable forming a coalition.
- 'Fraud of century' -
Lapid, 57, leader of the Yesh Atid party, was tasked with forming a government by President Reuven Rivlin after Netanyahu again failed to put together his own coalition following March elections, the fourth vote in less than two years.
In a separate political development, the Knesset voted Wednesday on Rivlin's successor and elected Isaac Herzog, a former leader of the Labor party, as the country's 11th president, due to take office next month.
Netanyahu wished Herzog 'good luck' and Herzog, the prime minister's one-time opponent, replied: 'I'll be happy to work with every government, no matter the leader.'
'Let's not get into it now,' the premier known as Bibi replied wryly.
Israel's latest political turmoil adds to the woes of Netanyahu, 71, who is on trial for criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust while in office -- accusations he denies.
If he were to lose power, he would not be able to push through changes to basic laws that could give him immunity, and would lose control over certain justice ministry nominations.
The premier and leader of the conservative Likud party, who served an earlier three-year term in the 1990s, has long been the dominant figure of Israeli politics and was close to former US president Donald Trump.
Netanyahu clinched historic normalisation agreements with four Arab states, and unrolled a world-beating Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
But he has not engaged in substantive peace talks with the Palestinians, who have been angered by a boom in expansion of Israel's West Bank settlements under Netanyahu's watch.
Israel's latest political turmoil follows weeks of escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, which spiralled into an 11-day exchange of rocket fire from Gaza and devastating Israeli air strikes last month.
Netanyahu on Sunday defiantly condemned the alliance against him as opportunistic and 'the fraud of the century', warning it would result in 'a left-wing government dangerous to the state of Israel'.