Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has started the daunting task of trying to cobble together a coalition government amid political deadlock that emerged from this month’s repeat elections, which had no clear winner.
He now has up to six weeks to attempt to resolve the political impasse, but his odds appear slim.
Even with the support of smaller allies, both Mr Netanyahu and his main challenger, Blue and White party leader and former army chief Benny Gantz, lack the support for the required 61-seat parliamentary majority needed to establish a government.
That is including the support of Mr Netanyahu’s traditional ultra-Orthodox and religious-nationalist allies.
On Thursday, the parties were jockeying ahead of a planned meeting by their negotiating teams the following day, with each side blaming the other for the stalemate.
“There are no rabbits in the hat. There are no tricks. There is no option,” other than unity, said Zeev Elkin, a politician with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party.
He told Israeli Army Radio that if Blue and White “continues to rule out Netanyahu on a personal basis and continues to rule out certain parties from sitting in that same unity government, at the end we may head to elections for a third time”.
Blue and White wants Mr Gantz to lead any unity government and refuses to sit in a coalition with Mr Netanyahu so long as he faces likely indictment for a series of corruption scandals.
Blue and White also objects to sitting with the right-wing and religious bloc that Netanyahu says he is committed to bringing into any government he forms.
President Reuven Rivlin selected Mr Netanyahu on Wednesday as the candidate with the best chance of forming a government.
That move came after Mr Rivlin failed to broker a unity government between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz in recent days.
A unity government appears to be the preferred option for both sides, but they remain far apart on what such a constellation would look like.
According to the final official results from the September 17 elections, Blue and White finished first with 33 seats in the 120-seat parliament, just ahead of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud with 32 seats.
Neither side can form a government without the eight seats held by maverick former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who supports bringing the two main parties into a unity government shorn of Mr Netanyahu’s traditional allies.
Mr Netanyahu has welcomed a unity government but has insisted on one that includes those partners.
If Mr Netanyahu fails to form a government before time runs out, Mr Rivlin can then ask Mr Gantz to try.
If he too does not succeed, Mr Rivlin can select another legislator or he can set in motion what would be unprecedented third elections.
Looming large over the political jostling are Mr Netanyahu’s legal woes.
Israel’s attorney general has recommended charging Mr Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a series of scandals and the embattled leader is set to appear at a hearing next week on the charges.
The likelihood of an indictment is high and could be handed down within weeks.
Although Mr Netanyahu is not required by Israeli law to step down if charged, he will face heavy pressure to do so.