Deadlocked talks with potential coalition partners have forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek more time to build a new government and avert a possible snap election, officials said on Friday.
They said Netanyahu would meet President Shimon Peres on Saturday to ask for a two-week extension after his right-wing party, the narrow victor in Israel's Jan. 22 ballot, exhausted the standard four weeks allotted to build a coalition.
Peres is expected to accept Netanyahu's request.
However, should the rightist premier fail to win enough allies for a parliamentary majority by March 16, the president could hand the task to a rival party leader. If no government emerged then, Israelis may have to return to the polls.
U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit Israel at the end of March.
Netanyahu's trouble building a new government raises the question of whether he may call off that visit. But when asked about Israeli reports he might cancel, an official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no talk at this point about the possibility of scrubbing the trip.
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said: "President Obama looks forward to traveling to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman later this month."
Israel's Major Political Parties:
Likud: Israel's main conservative party; supports the Israeli settlement movement in the occupied West Bank
Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home): Secular, nationalist party that wants to redraw borders so that parts of Israel with large Arab populations would be in a Palestinian state
Yesh Atid: Centrist party founded by former journalist Yair Lapid in 2012
Labor: Center-left party; supports renewing peace negotiations with the Palestinians and dismantling most Israeli settlements
Shas (Union of Sephardic Torah Observers): Represents Israel's ultra-orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Spanish origin and advocates a nation based on Jewish religious law
Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home): Far-right party that advocates annexing more than half the West Bank and opposes the Oslo Peace Accords
Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu ticket won 31 of the Knesset's 120 seats in the January vote - an eroded lead that required he cast a wide net for partners while juggling their disparate demands.
He has faced strong demands from the parties that placed second and fourth, Yesh Atid (There is a Future) and Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), to cut back mass exemptions from military conscription and welfare stipends to ultra-Orthodox Jews.
David Shimron, Likud Beitenu's negotiator, said before meeting Bayit Yehudi on Friday that Yesh Atid was "ruling out" sitting in government with the ultra-Orthodox. Yesh Atid has not disputed that characterization.
"We need to clarify this and other matters with Bayit Yehudi," Shimron told reporters. "In the end of the day, we have to build a government, and we do not accept the invalidation of a sector that is part of the Israeli people."
Netanyahu's outgoing coalition includes two ultra-Orthodox parties which have generally backed him on other policies such the settlement of occupied West Bank land in defiance of world powers, who support the Palestinians' drive for statehood there.
Bayit Yehudi is even less accommodating of the Palestinians than Netanyahu, who says he wants to revive stalled peace talks. By contrast, Yesh Atid says Israeli diplomacy is too listless.