JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel failed to form a new government by the midnight Tuesday deadline, putting his political future in jeopardy as he stands trial on corruption charges and prolonging a political deadlock that has only worsened after four elections in two years.
Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, may now give a rival, eclectic camp of anti-Netanyahu parties a chance to form a government, which could oust Mr. Netanyahu from power after 12 consecutive years in office.
Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party is by far the largest on Israel’s fractured political scene, having won 30 seats in a general election in March. Despite that, he was not able to muster enough coalition partners to command a majority of at least 61 seats in the 120-member Parliament.
His hopes for a right-wing and religious coalition ultimately fell short because his far-right allies refused to join a government supported by a small Islamist Arab party. The Arab party, Raam, was willing to back a Netanyahu administration in return for benefits for Israel’s Arab minority.
Mr. Netanyahu also failed in a last-gasp effort to persuade a right-wing rival, Naftali Bennett, to join him in a power-sharing agreement that would have seen the pair take turns as prime minister.
Mr. Rivlin may now ask one of Mr. Netanyahu’s rivals — representing a disparate group of parties ranging from the pro-settlement right to the secular left — to try to cobble together a governing coalition that would send the prime minister into the opposition. Or Mr. Rivlin could ask Parliament to put forward a candidate.
He has three days to make that decision.
Mr. Netanyahu would still remain in power as a caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed. If no one can form a government, Israel will be heading to a fifth election.
But with his failure to build a majority coalition, Mr. Netanyahu may have lost his best chance of gaining some kind of legal immunity from criminal prosecution. Charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, he has denied wrongdoing and insists the cases against him will collapse in court.
Some of his political allies had pledged to make moves or advance legislation that could put his trial on hold until he leaves office. A new Netanyahu government could also have appointed a more sympathetic attorney general to replace the current one, whose term is up early next year.
The failure to create a new government could also prolong a political stalemate that has left Israel without a state budget for two consecutive years in the middle of a pandemic, and has delayed appointments to several key administrative and judicial posts.
The largest party challenging Likud, and the runner-up in the election, is Yesh Atid, a centrist group that won 17 seats. But its leader, Yair Lapid, a former finance minister, does not have an easy path to forming a government either.
The bloc opposing Mr. Netanyahu is made up of numerous other small parties with clashing agendas. The smaller right-wing parties in the bloc view Mr. Lapid as too left-wing to lead the government.
Instead, discussions in Mr. Lapid’s bloc have centered around the possibility of Mr. Lapid sharing power with another candidate, such as Mr. Bennett, the leader of Yamina, a right-wing party that won just seven seats. Under such an agreement, Mr. Bennett might lead the country for a year, before handing the prime ministry to Mr. Lapid.
Mr. Lapid’s party has championed taxpaying middle-class Israelis and called for limits on the autonomy afforded to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community — many of whom are exempted from military service, and study religious texts instead of entering the work force. That has made him an enemy of the ultra-Orthodox parties that have long kept Mr. Netanyahu in power.
Mr. Lapid pledged during the election campaign to put his ego aside and concede the premiership if that was what it took to unseat Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
To make up a majority, this bloc would also need to rely on the support of an Arab party, something they have been reluctant to do in the past. Even if they succeed in forming a government with the limited goal of steadying the country after a long period of political chaos, many analysts believe its heterogeneity would make it short lived.
Mr. Bennett is also seeking a chance to try to form the next government. He has said that his preference is to build a right-wing coalition including Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud and the religious parties but, failing that, he would work to form a more eclectic “unity” government including parties from the anti-Netanyahu bloc.
If no government has been formed within the allotted time — 28 days for a lawmaker other than Mr. Netanyahu, or up to five weeks for a candidate nominated by Parliament — the assembly will automatically dissolve itself and Israelis will head back to the ballot box for the fifth time since the spring of 2019.
Aside from the country’s usual tensions between secular and religious, right-wing and left-wing, and Jewish and Arab, Israelis have become increasingly divided about Mr. Netanyahu himself. Those on the ideological right are now split between pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps.
Mr. Netanyahu had the solid support of only 52 lawmakers, from his own Likud, two loyal ultra-Orthodox parties and a far-right alliance. Three right-wing parties ultimately chose not to return him to government.
In total, 13 parties entered Parliament, all but Likud and Yesh Atid with seats in the single digits.
Any government that is formed is likely to be unstable and dependent on the demands and whims of small parties with disproportionate power.
This latest failure to form a government is a severe blow to Mr. Netanyahu. He campaigned hard for the March election and had staked his fortunes on Israel’s successful vaccination drive, which had allowed the economy and cultural life to reopen just in time for the ballot.
But commentators say it is still too early to write him off.
He similarly failed to form a government after two elections in 2019. But when his rivals also failed to cement a coalition, he remained in place as a caretaker prime minister. An election in April 2020 produced an ill-fated unity government that collapsed after seven months of political and administrative paralysis.
Some analysts say that Mr. Netanyahu, a political survivor, is happy to function as a caretaker prime minister, riding the wave of electoral turmoil from one transitional government to another, as long as he remains in office. And if the latest imbroglio ends in a fifth election, he is likely to run again.