After the polls closed in the Israeli election last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to have suffered a humiliating blow.
His chief opponent, Benny Gantz, a former military chief and leader of the centrist Blue and White party, emerged slightly ahead of the conservative Likud leader and seemed on course to be given the first chance to form Israel’s next government.
But by Wednesday, in a surprise twist, Mr. Netanyahu — long called “the magician” for his political survival skills — was back on center stage.
President Reuven Rivlin chose him to try to cobble together a coalition, opening the door to a continued shift to the right for Israel and offering a potential political lifeline to Mr. Netanyahu, who faces a looming indictment for corruption.
Still, the reversal of fortune falls short of a victory, and Mr. Netanyahu’s future in office remains far from assured.
He has 28 days to assemble a majority of at least 61 seats in Parliament and no clear path to that number. The parties that have endorsed his bid for another term won just 55 seats.
Mr. Netanyahu’s chances of success are “not good but not impossible,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “He’s pulled rabbits out of the hat before.”
This is the second time Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has been given the chance to form a government in five months. He and his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies won a plurality in the previous election in April but failed to assemble a majority coalition in its aftermath, leading to a repeat election this month.
He was dealt a slightly worse hand this time, leaving many Israelis wondering how he could possibly find a majority now that he couldn’t last time.
Mr. Rivlin seemed to acknowledge as much, saying he was handing the mandate to form a government to Mr. Netanyahu because his chances were greater than Mr. Gantz’s “at the moment.”
Mr. Gantz won the endorsements of only 54 lawmakers, one shy of Mr. Netanyahu’s total, but 10 of them were from Arab lawmakers who said they would not join a Gantz government. Mr. Rivlin apparently discounted those endorsements for that reason.
But eight days after the election, it could still play out in any number of ways, taking Israel’s future with it.
Mr. Netanyahu could tempt his former ally turned rival, Avigdor Liberman, leader of the secular, ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, which won eight seats, back into a partnership. Mr. Liberman has said he would refuse to join a coalition with Mr. Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, but perhaps, some analysts said, he would renege on his election promises, citing the good of the country.
Mr. Rivlin had been pushing Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz to forge a broad unity government including both their parties, saying that was the will of the voters. And on Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu said a unity government was the only way out of the political stalemate.
“Neither of us can form a government other than with each other,” Mr. Netanyahu said. And after a difficult election campaign, he said, a unity government was essential “to achieve national reconciliation.”
A unity government could set the country on a more moderate, unifying path after years of increasingly polarizing right-wing and religious governments.
But that, too, seems unlikely for now. Mr. Gantz has vowed not to sit in a government led by a prime minister facing indictment, and he reiterated that position on Wednesday.
Mr. Netanyahu faces possible indictments in three corruption cases, and a special hearing with the attorney general has been scheduled for next Wednesday. He could be charged in the coming weeks or months.
Mr. Netanyahu floated a government with “joint leadership,” without elaborating. But Mr. Gantz said he could not see a way to a power-sharing agreement since Mr. Netanyahu had already signed a pact with three right-wing and religious parties to stick together in any coalition negotiations.
Mr. Gantz has advocated a secular and liberal unity government excluding ultra-Orthodox parties. At least one of the ultra-Orthodox parties has ruled out joining a government with the No. 2 person in Blue and White, Yair Lapid.
If there are to be compromises and horse-trading, they may not be likely soon. If Mr. Netanyahu fails to assemble a majority coalition in 28 days, the president could grant him a 14-day extension. If Mr. Netanyahu still fails, the mantle could be passed to Mr. Gantz, who would then have another 28 days to form a government.
“Then,” said Ayelet Frish, an Israeli political consultant, “they both will have their backs to the wall. Public opinion will demand they both compromise to avoid a third election.”
At that point, Ms. Frish said, Mr. Netanyahu could give up on his right-wing and religious allies. And Mr. Gantz could drop his commitment not to sit in a government with Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Rivlin has already suggested one creative solution in which Mr. Netanyahu would declare himself incapacitated if charged, but maintain the title of prime minister for the duration of his trial, with Mr. Gantz serving as acting prime minister.
Experts have suggested that Mr. Gantz actually preferred to have the second turn at forming a government, after Mr. Netanyahu, figuring that it might be easier to persuade potential partners or defectors by then.
There’s yet another possibility gaining traction among pundits: that Mr. Netanyahu won’t be able to form a government and will return the mandate to Mr. Rivlin, possibly even before the 28 days are up. Mr. Rivlin could then give Mr. Gantz a turn.
But Mr. Netanyahu will be banking on Mr. Gantz failing, forcing Israel into a third election. That would allow Mr. Netanyahu to extend his tenure as prime minister until another election is decided.
Remaining in office is essential for Mr. Netanyahu. If he is criminally charged, he can continue to serve as prime minister until a final conviction. If he is in some lesser ministerial role, he will have to resign.
But also, he could blame Mr. Gantz for not joining his government and bringing on an election few Israelis want.
“The main thing here,” Mr. Wolfsfeld said, “is who’s going to be blamed if we have a third round of elections.”
Mr. Netanyahu, he added, “has nothing to lose.”