Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel's longest serving prime minister but now faces legal woes and an internal party challenge
Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel edged closer to a third election within a year Monday as neither the embattled premier Benjamin Netanyahu nor his main rival appeared close to forming a government two days before a deadline.
Right-winger Netanyahu and former army general Benny Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White alliance, traded blame over the impasse ahead of Wednesday, the last opportunity to form a coalition and avoid fresh polls.
A new election would be a repeat of September's deadlocked vote, which in itself was a response to inconclusive April polls, and would further deepen the political turmoil in the Jewish state.
Netanyahu, who was last month indicted on corruption charges said in a statement Monday he still wanted to form a "strong national government for Israel" and avoid "useless elections".
Referring to Gantz and his allies, he called on them to "stop the transparent exercises designed to divert attention from the fact that you refuse to form a broad national unity government".
The two parties have been discussing forming a unity coalition but Gantz has rejected serving under Netanyahu, pointing to the corruption allegations that the premier denies.
"The prime minister must serve as an example to the public," Gantz said at a meeting of his faction Monday.
He called on Netanyahu to publicly drop a demand that he be immune from prosecution, saying doing so would open the door to a unity government and avoiding "costly and unnecessary elections".
Following the inconclusive elections in September, both Netanyahu and Gantz were given 28-day periods to try and negotiate a workable coalition in Israel's proportional political system.
Neither was able to get the support of more than half of the members of the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.
- Down to the wire -
President Reuven Rivlin then turned to parliament in the hope of avoiding an unpopular election.
But the 21-day period he granted parliament to find a suitable candidate expires at 11:59 pm (2159 GMT) on Wednesday.
If nothing changes by then, new polls will be called for, most likely to be held in March.
Theoretically any member of parliament could try and gain the necessary support, but Netanyahu and Gantz remain the only realistic contenders.
A last-minute deal could still be reached with the help of a kingmaker in a political system where such battles often go down to the wire.
Avigdor Lieberman, whose secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party has eight seats and holds the balance of power, could decide to throw his support behind either bloc.
He has so far refused to back either, accusing Gantz of being reliant on the support of Israel's Arab minority and Netanyahu of being at the whim of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
He prefers a unity government, but weeks of talks have faltered.
In his statement Monday, Netanyahu made a personal call for Lieberman, a former ally turned fierce rival, to help him avoid new elections.
Yet most Israeli media said the stage was set for new elections.
- Internal challenge -
Netanyahu's political problems are intertwined with his legal woes -- Israel's attorney general last month indicted him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
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.
Under Israeli law Netanyahu, the country's longest serving prime minister, can remain in office despite an indictment.
A new poll Monday by Israel's public broadcaster Kan found that Netanyahu's Likud and Blue and White would again be deadlocked if elections were held today.
But if they do take place, Netanyahu might face yet another battle -- this time over the leadership of Likud.
Gideon Saar, a rival within the party, has called for a primary vote before any new election, though no decision has been taken yet on the idea.
On Sunday, both Saar and Netanyahu spoke at a closed-door meeting of Likud's central committee attended by around 800 people.
According to sources at the meeting cited by Israeli press, Saar received a warm welcome from his supporters but shouts of "traitor" from Netanyahu backers.
Saar later posted a video on his Facebook page of supporters chanting his name at the event.
"The attempts to delegitimize and besmirch those who seek to run (against Netanyahu) are against the Likud's democratic spirit," he told the crowd.
"A democratic competition strengthens the movement."