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Deadline looms as Israeli politicians seek to avoid third election

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Jerusalem (AFP)

A coalition government or new elections? Israeli incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz traded blame over faltering talks Wednesday ahead of a midnight deadline.

Former military general Gantz has until 11:59 pm (2159 GMT) to cut a coalition deal, or the country will edge closer to holding a third round of elections in a year.

Right-wing Netanyahu and centrist Gantz were nearly deadlocked after September elections, with neither able to command a majority in Israel's 120-seat parliament.

Netanyahu was first given 28 days to form a coalition government but failed, so President Reuven Rivlin granted Gantz a similar timeframe.

Netanyahu and Gantz have been in talks over establishing a unity government with Avigdor Lieberman's nationalist party, a deal that would see the two men rotate the premiership.

But tweets from Netanyahu and Gantz on Wednesday implied the talks had broken down.

"Unfortunately, during our meeting last night, Benny Gantz refused to accept the conditions put by Avigdor Lieberman, that is, to accept the President's solution that, as Prime Minister, I will be the first in rotation," Netanyahu said.

Gantz for his part accused Netanyahu of intransigence.

"Benjamin Netanyahu is rejecting unity and will do everything possible to drag us into elections for the third time," Gantz tweeted.

With the hours ticking down, Gantz pledged to continue seeking a deal.

"Any attempt to predict the outcome of Benny Gantz's mandate is a suicide mission," columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily Wednesday.

"The path towards establishing a government in Israel has never been at a greater impasse."

- Reluctant kingmaker -

If Gantz is unable to cut a deal by Wednesday, lawmakers have 21 days to propose a candidate capable of forming a majority to the president.

If that period passes without a breakthrough, a third election becomes inevitable.

Polls in April also led to a stalemate in a political system reliant on coalition building.

Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party has eight parliamentary seats and his backing could be enough to put either Netanyahu's right-wing or Gantz's centrist coalitions into power.

But the former defence minister has proved a reluctant kingmaker.

He has been wary of backing Gantz, as even if he did, they would fall short of a majority, needing at least the tacit support of the Arab Joint List to govern.

But Lieberman, a right winger known for his tough rhetoric towards Gaza, has reiterated his opposition to allying with Arabs.

He also accuses Netanyahu of being captive to the whims of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up around 10 percent of the population, objecting to the community's exemption from military service.

- 'Miracle' -

Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009, is also facing corruption allegations that could threaten his political career.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is due to decide by December whether to charge Netanyahu over a series of graft accusations he denies.

An indictment might permanently damage Netanyahu's support, whereas a reprieve could give him a new lease of life.

All sides say they are committed to avoiding new elections, but Caspit said he thought it was unlikely.

"We are going to need a miracle to avert a third election -- either that or a bold, surprising and courageous decision by one of the players."

However, Kan Radio's political correspondent Yoav Krakovsky said he expected Lieberman to eventually back a narrow right-wing Netanyahu government, but with significant concessions, including from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

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