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Benjamin Netanyahu’s hopes of clinging to power as Israel’s prime minister suffered a significant blow on Tuesday after his deadline to form a coalition government expired at midnight.
Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has been struggling to secure a 61-seat majority since March 23, when the country’s fourth election in two years produced no clear winner.
As the head of the party with the most seats, Likud, he had been tasked with building a coalition government but after several weeks of fruitless talks his mandate expired on Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, it was announced that opposition leader Yair Lapid would be given his own 28-day time period to form a government, though his path to power is also unclear.
Mr Netanyahu also suffered a last minute defeat on Tuesday evening after a committee failed to hold a vote on his proposal to stage direct elections for the premiership.
Benny Gantz, one of Mr Netanyahu’s rivals, said he had "failed again to form a government".
He added: "It is now your duty to think of the country, to look honestly at reality and concede your failure."
The failure to meet the midnight deadline does not mean that Mr Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges that he strongly denies, will be removed from office right away.
Several weeks of coalition talks on the opposition side are likely to follow, and if that fails Israel may head to a fifth election.
In the March 23 election, Likud emerged as the largest single party with 30 seats in the 120-member parliament.
But to form a government, Mr Netanyahu needs to have the support of a 61-seat majority.
That task has been complicated in large part by members of his own religious and nationalist base.
The New Hope party, led by a former aide of Mr Netanyahu, refuses to serve under the prime minister because of deep personal differences.
Religious Zionism, a far-right party, supports Mr Netanyahu but has ruled out serving in a government with the Arab partners he has courted, such as the Ra’am party.
On Monday, Mr Netanyahu said he had offered the head of Yamina, Mr Bennett, the chance to share the job of prime minister in a rotation government with Mr Bennett holding the post for the first year.
But Mr Bennett responded: "I never asked Netanyahu to be prime minister. I asked to form a government. Unfortunately, he does not have that."