Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and parliament speaker Benny Gantz faced a midnight deadline on Wednesday to form a unity government or risk prolonging the country's unprecedented political crisis.
The right-wing premier Netanyahu and centrist Gantz, Israel's former army chief, have gone head-to-head in three stalemate elections over the past year.
Following the most recent vote last month, both men fell short of a majority and neither had a clear path toward a viable governing coalition.
With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, including more than 12,000 confirmed infections in Israel, there have been widespread calls for an interim emergency alliance.
A Netanyahu-Gantz deal would give the Jewish state its first stable government since December 2018 and offer a rare period of political calm amid a global health crisis that is taking a devastating economic toll.
If the two cannot reach a deal by President Reuven Rivlin's midnight deadline, Israel's parliament, or Knesset, will likely be asked to nominate a candidate to become prime minister.
Throwing the decision to the Knesset would almost certainly create further uncertainty and could push Israel towards another election.
- Five-hour window -
Gantz, who heads the Blue and White alliance, was given a mandate for four weeks to form a government following the March vote after receiving a majority of recommendations from the 120-member Knesset.
But he was unable to do so given the bitter divisions within the anti-Netanyahu parliamentary bloc.
After being elected Knesset speaker, Gantz pledged to use the remainder of his mandate to seek a deal with Netanyahu.
Minutes before the mandate expired at midnight on Monday, Gantz and Netanyahu asked Rivlin for an extension, insisting they were close to a deal.
Rivlin gave them until the end of Wednesday.
Israel is shut down for the final day of Passover until Wednesday evening, meaning Gantz and Netanyahu will have less than five hours to talk before the deadline.
Gantz's decision to seek a deal with Netanyahu triggered the break-up of his Blue and White alliance.
But he said it was necessary to ease the grinding political deadlock and strengthen Israel's ability to confront the pandemic.
- Power-sharing scenarios -
By becoming speaker, Gantz all but conceded that Netanyahu would remain prime minister, at least through the first part of any prospective unity deal.
The two have reportedly discussed a range of power-sharing scenarios, including a deal that would see Gantz take over as premier after a number of months, or years.
But obstacles have emerged during coalition talks.
The sides are reportedly split over the choice of the justice minister, who will be tasked with overseeing a corruption case against Netanyahu.
The veteran premier, in power since 2009, became the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted in office after being charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
He denies the allegations.
There has also reportedly been friction about the implementation of US President Donald Trump's widely condemned Middle East peace plan.
Netanyahu wants fast action on the plan that would see Israel annex strategically crucial parts of the occupied West Bank in defiance of international law.
Gantz has been more cautious regarding the Trump plan, which has been categorically rejected by the Palestinians.
© 2020 AFP