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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses media during a joint press conference with French President in Jerusalem on Oct. 24.CHRISTOPHE ENA/AFP/Getty Images

Three weeks on from the shocking Hamas attacks on southern Israel, Gazans, the wider Middle East and a watching world are still waiting to see the extent of Israel’s retribution.

The man who will decide what happens next, and when, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a wildly divisive figure who is distrusted by a large majority of the Israeli public – and was also at odds with his country’s military leaders right until the moment the war broke out.

Polls show Israelis have little faith in the long-ruling Mr. Netanyahu – who fashioned himself as a security-first leader, only to preside over Israel’s biggest security failure in decades when Hamas militants invaded the country on Oct. 7, abducted more than 200 people and killed more than 1,400. Analysts say the only way Mr. Netanyahu can keep his job after the war is to preside over a near-perfect military operation in Hamas-ruled Gaza that somehow brings all the hostages home with minimal new Israeli casualties.

With Hamas dug in and prepared for the fight, that seems highly unlikely. And while Mr. Netanyahu waits and waits to give the order to invade Gaza, global support for an Israeli ground operation has fallen sharply amid the killing of more than 7,000 Gazans, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, the victims of Israeli air strikes and a three-week-old siege of the territory and its 2.3 million residents.

Uriel Abulof, an associate professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, said that while Israel is likely waiting for the go-ahead from its closest ally, the United States, Mr. Netanyahu’s own indecisiveness – in past clashes with Hamas he was reluctant to send the army into ground combat – is also part of the equation.

“The waiting is part of his personality,” Prof. Abulof said. “Israeli society by and large expects it to happen, and I think would like it to happen. But I think there is also a possibility that there will be no land invasion. This will ultimately be up to Netanyahu.”

Israel-Hamas war live updates for Oct. 27

The problem, for many Israelis, is that they simply don’t trust Mr. Netanyahu – who has led the country for a combined 16 years over three stints as Prime Minister – to make such a fraught decision. Complicating matters further is the personal acrimony between Mr. Netanyahu and top commanders of the Israeli military.

“Very recently, Netanyahu and members of his party were inciting against the army, against the Chief of Staff, against the officers and reservists, and it’s not forgotten,” said Ksenia Svetlova, an academic and former parliamentarian with the now-defunct Zionist Union party. Mr. Netanyahu reportedly berated the leadership of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in August over the fact reservists were joining weekly protests against his government.

Lieutenant-General Herzi Halevi, the Chief of Staff, made headlines of his own this summer by saying Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial reforms – which weakened court oversight of legislation passed by the government – were dividing both the country and its army.

Mr. Netanyahu’s long career at or near the top of Israeli politics has seen him repeatedly defy predictions of his doom – he returned to office last year while facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that are still before the courts – but a comeback from the failures of Oct. 7 would be of an entirely different scale.

One survey, conducted Oct. 18 and 19 by the Lazar Institute, found that 80 per cent of Israelis – and 69 per cent of those who voted for his Likud Party in the 2022 election – wanted to hear Mr. Netanyahu take responsibility for what happened on Oct. 7. So far, he hasn’t done so in public, even as Lt.-Gen. Halevi, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Ronen Bar, the head of the Shin Bet intelligence service, have all admitted failures.

Another poll, conducted Oct. 13 by the Maariv newspaper, suggested that Mr. Netanyahu and Likud would be swept from office if fresh elections were held, with only 29 per cent of Israelis saying he was still fit to be Prime Minister. “What we should have now is Netanyahu standing in front of the nation saying, ‘The moment after the war is over, I’m leaving office’ – or, even better, ‘I’m leaving office now.’ But no, the only thing that Netanyahu cares about, I think, is his personal power,” Prof. Abulof said.

  • Smoke and explosions caused by Israeli bombardment in the northern Gaza Strip, early Saturday.Abed Khaled/The Associated Press

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Mr. Netanyahu was already in the political fight of his life before the Hamas attacks. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis joined in the weekly protests against the judicial reforms and, more broadly, against Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government, which includes far-right figures such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power party.

Those political battles have largely been set aside as the country rallies in wartime. Five days after the attacks, Mr. Netanyahu was joined in a unity government by his long-time rival Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff who now sits on a small war cabinet with Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant.

The move means Mr. Gantz will share responsibility for both the war and its fallout. Afterward, however, he’s expected to return to the ranks of an opposition that is furious with what they see as a disaster brought on by two decades of Mr. Netanyahu’s policies. The Prime Minister’s critics accuse him of not only dividing Israel but helping to strengthen Hamas, while weakening the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas by ignoring the latter’s attempts to discuss a peace settlement.

Ms. Svetlova said Mr. Netanyahu’s strategy now appears to be to blame the military for not being ready, and the opposition for dividing the country, ahead of the Hamas attacks. In that narrative, he will try to sell himself once more as the only leader Israelis can trust with the country’s security.

But she predicted that the scale of what happened on Oct. 7 – with worse almost certainly still to come – is too awful for even Mr. Netanyahu to escape responsibility for.

“This is not the Six-Day War, this is not even the Yom Kippur War. This is a bloody war with a terrorist organization that sits in the midst of the civilian population. So we’re looking at Iraq, we’re looking at Afghanistan,” Ms. Svetlova said.

“This is quite an impossible situation. So to imagine that afterwards he will emerge as a shiny war hero? No, absolutely not.”

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