JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday entered the final stretch in drawn-out talks to form a new coalition that is due to be sworn in just days before the arrival of US President Barack Obama.
Time is of the essence for the Israeli leader who is facing a final deadline of March 16 to announce the shape of his new government after receiving a two-week extension to the initial 28 days he was given.
If he fails to piece together a working majority of at least 61 MPs, the task will be handed by President Shimon Peres to another party leader.
According to public radio, Netanyahu was expected to present the text of the agreement to parliament on Monday, with the new government likely to be sworn in 24 hours later.
But he has also been under added pressure ahead of a long-awaited visit by Obama, who will arrive on March 20 for a three-day trip visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories -- his first since becoming as president.
Under this double pressure, Netanyahu has stepped up the pace of negotiations which began five weeks ago, and after much hesitation, finally agreed to work with Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett's far-right Jewish Home party, media reported.
Lapid's fledgling party, which was set up in April 2012, won a shock victory in the January election, taking 19 of the Knesset's 120 seats, while Bennett's Jewish Home swept into fourth place with 12, with both agreeing they would not enter the coalition without the other.
Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist HaTnuah (six seats), has already agreed to join the coalition and take on the role of justice minister as well as playing a key role in the ministerial team in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu is also expected to bring in Kadima (two seats), a third centrist party, which is headed by former defence minister Shaul Mofaz, to join a government headed by his Likud-Beitenu, which fuses his rightwing Likud and the hardline Yisrael Beitenu of ex-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Likud-Beitenu's poor election showing, which saw it shedding a quarter of its 42 seats to win a narrow victory with just 31, has forced an unwelcome change on Netanyahu who spent the past four years in a comfortable coalition of rightwing and religious parties.
"After years in which a strong alliance was forged between Likud, national Zionism, new immigrants and the ultra-Orthodox parties, the elections came and rearranged the puzzle," said the Maariv daily.
The pact between Yesh Atid and Jewish Home has forced Netanyahu to give up on his so-called "natural partners" -- the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism -- with the two new parties bent on changing the draft law to compel ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the army.
"Netanyahu has found it hard to part from the all-too comfortable coalition that has accompanied him over the past years. Today he is heading for the unknown," Maariv said, indicating the new centre-right coalition would focus on long-neglected economic, social and civil issues.
As for the division of ministerial portfolios, media reports were unanimous that Likud's Moshe Yaalon, a former chief of staff, would take the defence ministry, while Netanyahu would temporarily hold on to foreign affairs while Lieberman is on trial for alleged fraud and breach of trust.
A former TV anchor, Lapid was expected to take the finance portfolio while Bennett would become minister of trade and industry in a government likely to have 24-25 ministers, down from 30 in the outgoing coalition.
As far as the peace process and other top issues such as the Iranian nuclear threat were concerned, Netanyahu would retain "full control," political commentator Hanan Crystal told AFP.
"He is not only head of the government, but Likud-Beitenu has the upper hand in the foreign and defence ministries," he said.
Livni, he said, "won't have any influence on the negotiations with the Palestinians.
"What she obtained was purely symbolic and only aimed at giving the impression that she has not broken her promise."