For more than a decade, he was both the unstoppable force and the immovable object of Israeli politics.
But after two years of political stalemate and a week of momentous developments, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in foreign territory: on the outside looking in, even as he seeks to project strength amid rising instability in Jerusalem.
After a flurry of Hamas rocket attacks on the holy city Monday, an unwavering Mr. Netanyahu warned that the Palestinian militant group had crossed a “red line” and would “pay a heavy price.” Israel responded quickly with airstrikes on Hamas targets throughout Gaza.
On the Israeli political front, however, the man who has been prime minister since 2009 is running out of options to maintain a governing coalition, hold on to power and retain the legal immunity of the office in the face of an ongoing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
In four inconclusive elections, Mr. Netanyahu has presented the country with an unsolvable dilemma: Israel, it seemed, could not form a stable government with him — or without him. But after one more failed attempt last week by Mr. Netanyahu to form a coalition government, the unthinkable is happening. Israelis of all stripes want to move on.
The beginning of the end may have come when Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party failed to meet a Wednesday deadline to assemble a Knesset majority. President Reuven Rivlin the next day turned to centrist Yair Lapid, a former television newscaster and onetime ally of Mr. Netanyahu, to take a crack at building a governing coalition.
Many who would have once considered alliances with Mr. Netanyahu and Likud are now saying they will consider a coalition only if Mr. Netanyahu steps aside. They also are considering alliances with others they once would have shunned. Mr. Netanyahu remains for now prime minister and could hold on to his post if Mr. Rivlin calls yet another general election, but Mr. Netanyahu’s challengers insist they can overcome their considerable differences to form a government without him.
“Israel thrived before Bibi and will thrive after Bibi,” Naftali Bennett, whose small, right-wing Yamina party holds crucial leverage in the drive for a coalition government, said in an interview with The Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz. “The Jewish people are not dependent on one person. A good leader does not create that sense that everything depends on him.”
Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv public opinion researcher and a political adviser who has worked on eight national campaigns in Israel, cautioned that Mr. Netanyahu “still could pull a rabbit out of the hat and form the next government.”
But, she added, “I think his chances have gone down somewhat, and that’s partly because there is a vigorous effort on the part of the other parties to form a government with one another, which will also probably be unstable, with odd bedfellows who don’t have a lot in common,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv public opinion researcher and a political adviser who has worked on eight national campaigns in Israel.
The inconclusive March vote was held after Mr. Netanyahu’s contentious fifth term, conceived as a shotgun marriage between his nationalist Likud party and the centrist Blue and White party, led by former Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz, who took the post of defense minister.
“Netanyahu formed a government with Benny Gantz, but it didn’t last — partly because [Mr. Netanyahu] didn’t want it to last,” Ms. Scheindlin said.
Mr. Gantz said he was in the partnership only to help guide the country through the COVID-19 pandemic and maintain the independence of the judiciary as the corruption case against Mr. Netanyahu ground through the courts.
The arrangement stipulated that Mr. Gantz would rotate into the premiership after Mr. Netanyahu served 18 months as prime minister, but the scheme collapsed after the parties failed to pass the 2020-2021 budget as part of their unity government deal.
Ahead of Tuesday night’s deadline on forming a government, Mr. Netanyahu simultaneously offered a rotation in the prime minister’s chair to three rivals: Mr. Gantz, Mr. Bennett and New Hope Chairman Gideon Sa’ar.
But in a sign that an era may be passing, all three said they would join a coalition with Likud members of parliament but wouldn’t agree to a power-sharing agreement with the party as long as Mr. Netanyahu remains its leader.
Mr. Bennett and Mr. Sa’ar have said they are prepared to join a unity coalition with Mr. Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties. Mr. Lapid’s centrist party won 17 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the election compared to 7 for Mr. Bennett’s right-wing Yamina, though it is Mr. Bennett who has emerged as the kingmaker after the March vote.
Eager to capitalize on the chance to definitively ditch Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Lapid and his voters say they are willing to slot Mr. Bennett in first as prime minister in a Netanyahu-free government.
According to an Israeli TV survey, nearly two-thirds of voters who backed parties aiming to eject Mr. Netanyahu think Mr. Lapid should stand aside and give Mr. Bennett the political reins for now.
In a sign of Mr. Bennett’s emergence as the most viable contender to lead the anti-Netanyahu “Change Bloc,” the Yamina leader met with United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas late last month to explore options for a broad coalition.
Israeli-Arab parties traditionally have been sidelined in coalition talks, and the far-right settler and religious factions helped torpedo Mr. Netanyahu’s chances by vetoing any attempt to include Mr. Abbas in the next government.
“A government with Abbas is like a government with Hamas,” said Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich, who warned that he would make sure Muslims do not remain in Israel if they do not recognize that the land belongs to the Jews.
Determined to avoid the specter of a fifth election, some Israelis are daring to imagine how the country would be different when Mr. Netanyahu is shown the door.
“This time, I think Israel can probably form a government, probably without Netanyahu. And it will be an interesting exercise of people that are coming from the left, the center and from the right with a common agenda to get the rational process in this country back on track,” said Erel Margalit, who heads Jerusalem Venture Partners, an Israeli technology investment powerhouse and a Labor party member during Mr. Netanyahu’s third term as prime minister.
“A dose of honesty and decency will build trust between parties which are different, and that’s going to create a sense of opportunity, a new political joint venture to take advantage of the post-pandemic opportunities for our economy, particularly in the Arab Gulf states,” said Mr. Margalit, who has led several delegations of Israeli technology entrepreneurs in deal-seeking missions to the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Margalit said he thinks Mr. Bennett’s professional background managing teams at a successful tech company could enable new forms of multiparty cooperation despite Yamina’s hard-line position on territorial concessions to the Palestinians, opposition to same-sex marriage and other policy stances that bolster his religious-nationalist bona fides.
Still, Likud’s most stalwart supporters think it’s simply chutzpah for Mr. Bennett, whose party came in fifth place, to assume the premiership.
“We’ve never had a situation where a head of a party with seven members made an effort to claim that he needs to be the next prime minister,” said Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat, an upscale settlement seven miles south of Jerusalem, as he left a Ramadan iftar at a nearby Palestinian village. “Israelis saw the depth of Netanyahu’s leadership on COVID-19. Netanyahu saw what the challenge was. He managed to beat the whole world with the number of vaccines brought in and succeed because he had the experience and the ability to close the deal.
“Now, if you have somebody who is not confident and not experienced in the job, we will have to pay a learning fee until the new leader becomes assertive and capable of making difficult decisions,” Mr. Revivi said.