Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is on his last legs, it is widely believed, and will be forced to relinquish his post once the war against Hamas in Gaza ends.
He is historically unpopular in the opinion polls and blamed for the governmental and security failures that led to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, the killings of an estimated 1,200 Israelis and the difficult war that has followed. He faces a long-running trial on a variety of corruption charges.
And he has defied President Biden on American efforts to create a postwar path to a two-state solution, with a demilitarized Palestine alongside Israel. While opposition to a Palestinian state is popular among Israelis, defiance of Washington is considered risky.
But Mr. Netanyahu, 74, known everywhere as “Bibi,” has been a remarkable dancer through the complicated choreography of Israeli politics, having survived many previous predictions of his downfall. And new elections in Israel are not legally required until late October 2026.
“We’d all like to look past Bibi,” said Anshel Pfeffer, an analyst with the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz. “But there is no way to force him to resign.”
So how might Mr. Netanyahu leave office before then? Here are the most likely paths, together with their pitfalls.
Path 1: His Coalition Collapses
The simplest route to ousting Mr. Netanyahu is for his coalition to fall apart. He rules with 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset, or Parliament. So the defection of only five members would bring down the government, forcing elections within three months.
Mr. Netanyahu leads the Likud party, which won 32 seats in November 2022, the most of any party. But to form a government he had to bring in five other parties, including two tiny far-right parties led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. Their combined 13 seats keep Mr. Netanyahu in power, while they act as a kind of far-right opposition within the government itself.
Mr. Smotrich and Mr. Ben-Gvir are not part of the wartime security cabinet that also includes center-right opposition figures like Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who agreed to join the government after Oct. 7, strengthening the coalition for now. And Mr. Smotrich and Mr. Ben-Gvir have been fierce in their opposition to any idea of a Palestinian state, while trying to promote Israeli civilians’ resettlement of Gaza after the war.
More painful for Mr. Netanyahu, they have opposed any hostage-for-prisoner deal that would be necessary for a long-term Israeli cease-fire in Gaza — like the one being negotiated right now.
If Mr. Smotrich and Mr. Ben-Gvir were to leave the government, a strong possibility if Mr. Netanyahu should agree to a cease-fire deal, another opposition party led by Yair Lapid could step in temporarily to save the hostage deal, but not to prevent early elections.
Or Mr. Smotrich and Mr. Ben-Gvir might decide to abandon Mr. Netanyahu in order to force elections, where they would run as leaders of the parties that would allow Israeli settlement to continue and block any effort to create an independent Palestine. Their goal in this scenario is to win many of Likud’s right-wing voters disgusted with Mr. Netanyahu and his party for their failures on Oct. 7.
Path 2: ‘Constructive No Confidence’
A second and more complicated path is a vote of “constructive no confidence.” In principle, any member of Parliament who can get the support of a majority of its members can become prime minister.
In the current Likud-led government, that challenge is most likely to come from a party member. Amnon Abramovich, a political analyst on Channel 12, an Israeli news outlet, and Mr. Pfeffer of Haaretz said that at least five Likud legislators would have to break with the current government and decide on a replacement for Mr. Netanyahu from within their party, then get a majority of the legislators to agree with their pick. The point of the mechanism is to pull down one government while installing another with minimal disruption.
That would have the advantage of keeping Likud in power while staving off early elections.
The problem, Mr. Abramovich said, is that the Likud politicians who are most likely to lead such a maneuver, like the defense minister, Yoav Gallant; or a former Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat; or Yuli Edelstein, a former speaker of the Knesset, “all want the others to go with them.” They are each happy to lead, he said, but not to follow.
Mr. Pfeffer agreed. “No one wants to give the job on a platter to their rival,” he said.
And Mr. Netanyahu, he said, is extremely skilled and experienced in playing rivals off against one another and threatening them, sometimes on the basis of carefully kept dossiers, with political death if they move against him.
Likud’s leadership also knows that on the basis of current polls, the party would be crushed in any new election. Mr. Abramovich said that Mr. Netanyahu has lost “perhaps 50 percent of his support” among Likud voters because of his security failures, his refusal to take responsibility for the debacle of Oct. 7 and for what they see as his “playing politics during the war.”
There is another complication, known as the “Norwegian law,” that allows ministers to quit their cabinet seats to concentrate on their ministerial jobs and have the seats filled, temporarily, by others from their party. So any new Likud leader would have to ensure that ministers who return to their seats in Parliament would back him or her as prime minister.
Path 3: The Opposition Quits the Unity Government
Mr. Gantz and Mr. Eisenkot, both respected former generals, could quit the wartime unity government and try to lead a movement for early elections. But since they each lack a majority, neither could not bring down Mr. Netanyahu’s government on his own.
Given that even new elections would require a three-month campaign, Mr. Netanyahu would remain as prime minister without their views and restraints on his actions during the war. That and the principle of wartime unity have so far kept Mr. Gantz and Mr. Eisenkot inside the government. But they may decide otherwise if there is an extended cease-fire and the war winds down.
Mr. Gantz, who is currently the most popular politician in Israel, is considered to be the most conflicted about whether and when to leave the government, while Mr. Eisenkot, a member of Mr. Gantz’s party, has been more outspoken in his criticism of Mr. Netanyahu during the war.
Path 4: Civil Protest
A fourth path, which some consider the most likely, would be a forceful renewal of the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations that divided Israel for nearly nine months before Oct. 7. The war has created a form of unity, but it is already cracking over issues like the hostages, how to end the war and what to do about Gaza and the Palestinians when hostilities cease.
If Mr. Gantz and Mr. Eisenkot leave the government, the question will be to what extent Mr. Netanyahu’s rivals and the families of the hostages and the soldiers who were killed or injured can create the widespread and continuous protests “that might rock this government and force new elections,” Mr. Abramovich said.
Demonstrations that go beyond the political left and merge the concern over the hostages with rage at the failures of Oct. 7 “could apply real pressure on the coalition for elections sometime in 2024,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
That would present a dilemma for President Biden, since his proposal of working toward a two-state solution after the war has been rejected by Mr. Netanyahu and would also depend on a new Israeli government. But American officials also note that a direct confrontation with Mr. Netanyahu is most likely to be counterproductive, buttressing his campaign inside Likud and the country at large as the indispensable barrier to a Palestinian state.
Nahum Barnea, a columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, a popular Israeli newspaper, said that up to 80 percent of Israelis want Mr. Netanyahu gone, “but we don’t have a mechanism that can break the current government, and he is still very active and doesn’t believe he’s guilty or responsible.”
“I don’t rule out that he will win,” he added, “even against President Biden.”