Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's deadline to form a new government expired on Wednesday and Israel's president was poised to ask another candidate to try, inviting two of the long-serving leader's top opponents for talks.
Netanyahu, 71, has been in office since 2009 and also served for three years in the 1990s. He has been fighting to hold the helm through four inconclusive elections since 2019 and is on trial for criminal corruption charges he denies.
His 28-day mandate to put together a coalition ran out at midnight after he failed to agree terms with potential right-wing partners, opening the way for President Reuven Rivlin to assign the task to another member of parliament.
That is widely expected to be Yair Lapid, 57, whose centrist Yesh Atid party placed second to Netanyahu's right-wing Likud in Israel's March 23 vote, in which neither the prime minister nor his rivals gained control of a parliamentary majority.
With a power-sharing rotation agreement between Lapid and ultranationalist politician Naftali Bennett, 49, of the Yamina party widely mooted, Rivlin invited both men to meet him later on Wednesday, a spokesman for the president said.
Rivlin might also see other party leaders during the day, should they ask to meet him, the spokesman said. Under law, he has three days to make his decision, which includes the option to ask parliament to name a candidate.
There was also no guarantee that, after the conservative incumbent was unable to assemble a new coalition, a potential patchwork coalition of left-wing, centrist and rightist parties outside his caretaker government could bridge their differences and unseat him.
Both sides have courted the support of parties representing Israel's about 20% Arab minority, potentially giving them say over a Cabinet for the first time in decades.
Much of the impasse results from Netanyahu's legal troubles: Some prospective allies have pledged not to serve under a prime minister who is on trial.
Failure to break the deadlock would lead to a new election, adding to political turmoil while Israel faces challenges from Iran's nuclear programme and pursues economic recovery after a swift rollout of Covid-19 vaccine.