A deadline for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government has expired, putting his political future in question.
President Reuven Rivlin may now ask a rival to try to assemble a coalition.
Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, and Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina party, spoke to Mr Rivlin on Wednesday morning.
But there remains a risk of the country having to hold a general election for the fifth time in only two years.
This will be a blow for Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader. However, after the inconclusive result of the last election on 23 March, it is an outcome that was widely predicted, the BBC’s Yolande Knell reports from Jerusalem.
Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party is the largest in the Knesset, with 30 seats
Mr Netanyahu was given 28 days to build a coalition with a majority in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, but he was unable to do so before the deadline ended at midnight on Wednesday.
His right-wing Likud party – which emerged as the largest in the election, winning 30 seats – blamed the failure on what it said was Mr Bennett’s “refusal to commit to a right-wing government”.
Mr Netanyahu told his former protégé and defence minister on Monday that he would be willing to hand over the premiership to him for one year as part of a rotation agreement, despite Yamina only controlling seven seats. Mr Bennett dismissed the proposal, noting that even with his party’s support Mr Netanyahu would still be two seats short of a majority.
The far-right Religious Zionism alliance had also ruled out joining a coalition supported by the small Arab Islamist party, Raam, which said it was open to working with Mr Netanyahu to address the needs of Israel’s Arab citizens.
After Mr Netanyahu returned his mandate, Mr Rivlin’s office said he intended to make a decision in the next three days “about the next steps in the process of forming a government” and was considering inviting members of parliament who were candidates for the task to meet him.
The first two leaders to travel to the president’s residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday were Mr Lapid, whose party is the second largest in the Knesset with 17 seats, and Mr Bennett. Both asked Mr Rivlin for the mandate.
Yair Lapid (L) and Naftali Bennett (R) met President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on Wednesday
Mr Lapid, a former TV presenter and finance minister, is expected to be given a chance to form a government. But our correspondent says he would face a challenge to bridge wide ideological differences between the parties he could ask to join a coalition.
He has previously said that he would be prepared to share the premiership with Mr Bennett, with the latter leading the country first.
“We will do everything to form an Israeli unity government,” Mr Lapid told reporters following his meeting with the president.
Mr Bennett said: “With God’s help, we will form a good government for the nation of Israel.”
If a nominee asked by the president proves unable to put together a government, he can task the Knesset with selecting a candidate. If it cannot, Israel will hold another election.
A long period of political stalemate in Israel has been complicated by Mr Netanyahu’s ongoing trial for corruption, which he denies. His rivals argue he should not remain in office while facing criminal charges.
Mr 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 election.