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May 6, 6:06 AM EDT

Israel's Netanyahu races to form narrow coalition government

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JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was racing against the clock Wednesday to put together a governing coalition or else face an almost unimaginable scenario by which he would be forced out of office.

Netanyahu was holding furious consultations with the hawkish Jewish Home Party in order to secure a narrow 61-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament. If he fails by the end of the day, President Reuven Rivlin must appoint someone else the task of forming a coalition.

After Netanyahu's Likud Party won March 17 elections with 30 seats, it seemed he would have a relatively easy time forming a coalition.

But talks stalled this week when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman unexpectedly stepped down and announced his secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party was joining the opposition. That left Netanyahu dependent on Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, a former aide who has a rocky relationship with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has secured deals with three partners controlling 53 seats. They include Kulanu, a centrist party focused on economic issues, and two ultra-Orthodox religious parties.

Fuming over the deals giving ultra-Orthodox parties ministerial power over religious services, Bennett is driving a hard bargain. Slated to serve as education minister, Bennett is now demanding the job of justice minister for a party member.

The Jewish Home party is linked to the West Bank settler movement and unlikely to push for Netanyahu's ouster, a move that could open a potential path to government of the more dovish Zionist Union. Even if, as expected, they reach a deal, Netanyahu would have a thin majority, leaving him vulnerable to extortion from any individual coalition lawmaker.

A narrow coalition would have a difficult time passing economic reforms favored by Kulanu. It also would be averse to Palestinian peace moves and likely favor expanded settlement construction, putting it on a collision course with the international community.

Likud officials concede such a government would not be effective or last long, raising speculation that Netanyahu will ultimately reach out to the Zionist Union and its leader, Isaac Herzog. He insists on serving as the opposition leader.

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