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Israel: Netanyahu's rivals face deadline to form coalition

Centrist Yair Lapid and nationalist Naftali Bennett were moving closer toward unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, if they can pull a disparate set of coalition partners together.

 Israeli politician Yair Lapid (L) speaks to Naftali Bennett (R).

Yair Lapid (L) and Naftali Bennett (R) are both expected to serve as prime minister in rotation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opponents were racing the clock on Wednesday to finalize a coalition government.

Composed of bitter ideological rivals, the coalition would end the 12-year rule of Netanyahu, Israel's longest-ruling prime minister.

Former television presenter Yair Lapid, a secular centrist, was tasked by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to form a government.

If Lapid, however, misses the deadline, Israel is likely to go into its fifth election in just over two years, giving Netanyahu another chance to hold onto his position. 

Israel's parliament on Wednesday also selected a new president, Isaac Herzog, the secular son of Chaim Herzog, who served as the president of Israel from 1983 to 1993.

Herzog is set to take over the highly ceremonial role on July 9. Should Wednesday's efforts to form a coalition fail, he could face a busy first few weeks in office.

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Rotating prime ministers?

On Sunday, Lapid won the crucial support of hardline religious nationalist Naftali Bennett.

Lapid and Bennett have reportedly agreed to serve as rotating prime ministers as part of a power-sharing agreement. The duo has to reach a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Lapid's Yesh Atid party and Defense Minister Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White said in a joint statement they had "agreed on the outlines of the government and core issues relating to the strengthening of democracy and Israeli society".

Gantz would remain defense minister in the new cabinet, the parties said.

According to Israeli media reports, there were some disagreements over lower-level political appointments but Lapid was poised to announce an agreement on Wednesday. 

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Who are the allies needed to form a coalition? 

To unseat Netanyahu and command a combined majority, Lapid must sign individual agreements with seven parties, whose members would then vote in the Knesset to confirm the coalition.

For that, he needs the support of other left and right-wing parties and likely the support of Arab-Israeli politicians.

Lapid said on Monday that obstacles remained to form the coalition but added: "That's our first test — to see if we can find smart compromises in the coming days to achieve the greater goal."

The Islamic conservative Raam party has signaled openness to any deal that improves living conditions for Israel's 20% Arab minority of Palestinian descent.

The Raam party was not aiming for Cabinet positions, but rather a chairmanship of parliamentary committees and budgets for Arab communities, according to a political analyst quoted by AFP news agency.

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Bye-bye Bibi? 

Netanyahu's Likud party won the most seats in the March 23 election.

However, Netanyahu failed to form a majority with his traditional allies when a far-right party backing him refused to join forces with a small Arab party.

He has also been battling corruption charges, including bribery and breaching public trust.

The possibility of unseating Netanyahu also comes after a flare-up of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

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fb/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)