Beleaguered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is Israel's longest-serving premier, has failed to meet a midnight deadline of forming a government, giving his rivals a chance to end his uninterrupted stint at the helm of politics since 2009.
Netanyahu, 71, who is facing trial on a series of graft charges, was tasked by President Reuven Rivlin to put together a government on April 6 following inconclusive polls, the fourth in the last two years.
The mandate given by Rivlin to Netanyahu to form a government expired on Tuesday at midnight with no breakthrough in coalition talks, prolonging the country's political stalemate.
His Likud party emerged as the single largest party in the 120- member Parliament but did not have the necessary 61-member support to form a government. Likud had won 30 seats in the general election in March.
While tasking Netanyahu with the responsibility of forming the government, Rivlin said that he was doing so reluctantly and also mentioned his "moral dilemma" given the court proceedings and lack of enough support for the Likud leader.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
President Rivlin's spokesman in a statement said: "Shortly before midnight, Netanyahu informed the President's Residence that he was unable to form a government and so returned the mandate to the president." Rivlin on Wednesday contacted the parties represented in the Knesset (Israel's unicameral parliament) on the continuation of the process of forming a government.
The President met with Yesh Atid party's chairman, Yair Lapid, and Yamina party's chairman, Naftali Bennett.
Both Lapid and Bennett reiterated their desire to be given the mandate to form the next government, press releases from the Presidency said.
The Blue and White party, headed by Defence Minister Benny Gantz has recommended that Lapid be granted the Presidential mandate to form a government, a spokesperson for the party said.
Rivlin now has three days to decide whether to hand over the mandate to another lawmaker or to pass it on to the Knesset to give it a chance to find at least 61 lawmakers who can agree on a candidate to lead the next coalition government.
If all the efforts to put together a government fails, the country could face the agony of an unprecedented fifth general election with a prolonged political stalemate.
Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first chance to form a coalition after 52 members of parliament endorsed him as Prime Minister last month, compared to 45 for Lapid and a mere seven for Bennett.
But even if Lapid is given the mandate, the key man in coalition negotiations would be Bennett, a former defence minister.
Netanyahu failed to persuade Bennett to join him in a power-sharing agreement that would have seen the pair take turns as prime minister.
Bennett had dismissed the offer, saying that even with his support Netanyahu could not muster a majority.
Likud blamed Bennett for foiling Netanyahu's chances by refusing to commit to a right-wing government, which would certainly have led to the formation of a government joined by additional members of parliament.
Though the right-wing bloc in the Israeli political spectrum has repeatedly garnered the majority seats in all the four elections, a lot of determined "friends turned foes" of Netanyahu have prevented a majority for him in the 120-member house.
Looking to oust Prime Minister Netanyahu, talks are ongoing between different political factions over the formation of a "unity government" putting together the "change bloc" that will include parties from the Left, Centre and the Right.
Netanyahu is Israel's longest-serving leader, having led five governments since 1996. The last, which saw him share power with the then-main Opposition party to help tackle the coronavirus pandemic, collapsed in December, triggering the latest elections.
Until any new government is agreed and sworn into office, Netanyahu remains Israel's Prime Minister.