Israel's president has tapped opposition leader Yair Lapid to form a new government _ a step that could lead to the end of the lengthy rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
President Reuven Rivlin announced his decision on live television a day after Netanyahu failed to cobble together a governing coalition by a midnight deadline.
Rivlin spent the day consulting with all of the parties elected to Israel's parliament and announced late Wednesday that he believes Lapid has the best chance of forming a coalition.
Lapid, whose late father was a Cabinet minister and who himself is a veteran journalist and politician, now has four weeks to reach a deal with potential partners.
While Lapid faces a difficult task, he now has the chance to make history by ending the reign of Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister. Netanyahu has held the post for a total of 15 years, including the past 12.
``It looks like, perhaps within a few days or a few weeks, we might have a functioning coalition that will not include Mr. Netanyahu. This will be a groundbreaking change,`` said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank.
He acknowledged, however, that ``a fifth consecutive election is still, unfortunately, a real possibility.''
Elections held March 23 ended in deadlock for the fourth consecutive time in the past two years. Despite repeated meetings with many of his rivals and unprecedented outreach to the leader of a small Islamist Arab party, Netanyahu was unable to close a deal.
Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first chance to form a coalition after 52 members of parliament endorsed him as prime minister last month. That was short of a majority, but the highest number for any party leader.
During Wednesday's consultations, the 52-member pro-Netanyahu bloc asked Rivlin not to give another candidate a chance to form a government and instead send the matter directly to parliament.
In a statement, Likud claimed there was no viable combination for an alternative coalition and that prolonging the negotiating process was a waste of time. Moving straight to parliament, it said, ``will save another period of uncertainty for the state of Israel.''
Netanyahu has become a divisive figure in Israeli politics, with the last four elections all seen as a referendum on his rule. He has been desperate to remain in office while he stands trial, using his position to lash out at prosecutors and seek possible immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and bribery in a series of scandals. The trial has moved into the witness phase, with embarrassing testimony accusing him of trading favors with a powerful media mogul.
Netanyahu denies the charges, accusing law enforcement, the judiciary and the media of waging a ``witch hunt'' against him.