After months of political turmoil, Israel and its embattled premier Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday looked headed for a third election within a year unless they can resolve a stalemate before midnight.
Chances for a last-minute resolution looked dim after days of mudslinging between Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz, both of whom have repeatedly failed to build a governing majority in the Knesset, or parliament.
The drama look set to pit Netanyahu — Israel's longest-serving premier, now governing in the caretaker role — into another political battle at a time when weakened by corruption charges, he must fend off internal challengers in his Likud party.
A last-ditch deal to avert a third general election in 12 months must be reached before an 11:59 pm (2159 GMT) deadline, after which President Reuven Rivlin must declare negotiations failed and call fresh polls.
Recent days had been expected to see frantic negotiations but instead saw all sides trading blame over the failing coalition talks — and staking out ground ahead of the looming new elections, likely to be held in March 2020.
Conservative Likud leader Netanyahu and Gantz, a former army general who heads the centrist Blue and White party, had been discussing a potential unity government, but then disagreed on who should lead it.
Last month, when Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges, Gantz called on him to step down.
On Monday, Gantz said he was open to a coalition, but only if Netanyahu was willing to pledge he would not seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
Israeli media broadly agreed Tuesday that the talks had all but collapsed and Israel's weary electorate, for the first time ever, would be asked to go to the polls for the third time within 12 months.
"The assessment among everyone was unanimous: there is no chance," said the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper.
"It seems that the political establishment has completely despaired of the possibility of averting third elections."
'Lies and excuses'
The parties of Netanyahu and Gantz were nearly deadlocked in September's elections, following similarly inconclusive polls in April.
Israel's proportional system is reliant on coalition building, and both parties fell well short of the 61 seats needed to form a coalition in the 120-seat Knesset.
Both were then given 28-day periods to try and negotiate a workable coalition but failed, forcing Rivlin to turn to parliament with his deadline for Wednesday.
New elections are deeply unpopular with the Israeli public, which has increasingly expressed its anger and frustration with the entire political class.
Both parties had been trying to convince Avigdor Lieberman, a crucial kingmaker, to join their blocs.
But the former nightclub bouncer, whose secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party holds the balance of power, has refused.
Kann Radio reported Tuesday that Netanyahu had abandoned hopes of earning Lieberman's endorsement.
Lieberman pointed out that Likud and Blue and White wouldn't need his support if they could agree to work together.
"If during the next 24 hours a government is not formed it will be solely because the leaders of the two big parties — Likud and Blue and White — were not willing to set aside their egos," he said on Facebook Tuesday.
"All the rest is lies and excuses."
Netanyahu was indicted last month for bribery, breach of trust and fraud relating to three separate corruption cases.
He strongly denies the allegations and accuses the country's media, police and prosecution of a witch-hunt.
No date has yet been set for the beginning of the proceedings and, under Israeli law, Netanyahu can remain in office despite an indictment.
He also faces a potential challenge from within his own Likud party.
To boost his support, Netanyahu has pushed his plan to annex a strategic part of the West Bank, occupied Palestinian territory, as well as signing a defence treaty with the United States.
He is a close ally of US President Donald Trump, who has taken a number of controversial steps in support of Netanyahu's agenda.
Blue and White, meanwhile, pledged Monday to run with only one leader in the next election — Gantz.
Previously Yair Lapid, second in command in the coalition, was meant to alternate the premiership, but on Monday Lapid said: "We'll all get behind Benny Gantz, our candidate for prime minister."
Despite Netanyahu's indictment, polls suggest that the third round of elections could still be neck and neck — prompting some Israelis to speculate about yet another electoral stalemate.
A commentary writer for Israel Hayom suggested that "a fourth election is even now visible on the horizon sometime in early September 2020".