A month after his rightwing Likud-Beitenu alliance narrowly won an election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still striving to build a coalition, as talk emerges about the possibility of going to the polls again.
Although the small, centrist HaTnuah party agreed on Tuesday to come on board, its six parliamentary seats added to Likud-Beitenu's 31 still leave Netanyahu a long way from a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
"Political tangle," was top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily's front-page headline on Friday.
The media say that prospective coalition partners, Yesh Atid, Jewish Home and Kadima -- with a combined total of 33 seats -- were working together to exert the maximum political price for cooperating with Netanyahu.
They said Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home, was demanding that Netanyahu renege on a pledge to centrist HaTnuah's head Tzipi Livni to put her in charge of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Likud-Beitenu and Jewish Home officials met on Friday, with the latter describing the talks, in which the Livni deal was discussed, as taking place in a good atmosphere, army radio reported.
Discussions are expected to continue in the coming week.
As the horse trading dragged on, a Jewish Home delegate to coalition talks said Netanyahu had been warning that he could call another general election.
"I heard that the prime minister said that if he doesn't manage to form a coalition then perhaps we'll have to go to elections," Moshe Klughaft told public radio.
Israel is on the eve of the Purim Jewish festival, which features carnival costumes, fireworks and toy guns, and Klughaft said: "I suggest in the spirit of Purim that he doesn't make threats with cap pistols, especially in the light of the polls we see in the papers."
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Opinion polls in Fridays's press showed that if new elections were held now Likud-Beitenu, which lost 11 seats in the January 22 general election, would be weakened still further.
A survey by Maagar Mohot Polling Institute for Maariv daily showed Likud-Beitenu slipping another three seats to 28, while the centrist Yesh Atid would climb from 19 MPs to 24 and Jewish Home gain one seat to 13.
The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Yediot Aharonot reported on an online survey conducted by Panels Politics Polling Institute, which showed Yesh Atid skyrocketing to 30 seats to become the largest single party in parliament and Likud-Beitenu sliding to 22.
It did not give the number margin of error.
But Netanyahu still has time to make a deal.
President Shimon Peres tasked him with seeking to form a coalition on February 2 and he initially has until March 2 to complete the task. Should he be unable to do so in the time he cam ask for a two-week extension until March 16.
If he still fails, Peres can ask another party leader to make the attempt and the clock starts ticking again.
After the February 2009 election, Netanyahu was 5 days into the 14-day extension period before he said he was ready to present a government and another six days passed before it was confirmed by parliament.