Israel PM hands centrists ultimatum as govt crisis looms

Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday pledged to turn to the ultra-Orthodox parties to form a coalition if the centrist Yesh Atid refused to back down from its "exaggerated demands".

The Israeli leader has been holding intensive coalition talks ahead of a looming March 16 deadline to announce the shape of his new government. If he fails to piece together a working majority of at least 61 MPs, the task will be handed to another party leader.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who is widely expected to be a senior partner in the new government, has so far managed to convince Netanyahu to agree to a slimline cabinet of 20 ministers, down from 28, and to form a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox.

But Lapid's insistence on Yesh Atid taking the prestigious education portfolio has angered Netanyahu who wants to keep it in Likud hands, prompting the premier to issue him an ultimatum.

"If, in the next hours there will not be a breakthrough in the negotiations with Lapid and he doesn't back down from his exaggerated demands, the prime minister will begin swift talks with the ultra-Orthodox parties," a Likud source said.

So far, Netanyahu, whose Likud-Beitenu list which won a narrow election victory of 31 mandates within the 120-seat parliament, has only signed one coalition agreement with the centrist HaTnuah headed by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, which won six seats.

Late on Tuesday, Netanyahu reportedly met with Naftali Bennett, whose far-right Jewish Home won 12 seats.

Bennett has so far stuck closely to Lapid, with the two agreeing that neither party would enter the coalition without the other.

Media reports also said Netanyahu met one of the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party (11 seats), on Tuesday night.

Shas and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, which won seven mandates, collectively count for 18 seats.