Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu built his reputation as a security hawk on the back of his service in an elite special forces unit that carried out some of Israel’s most daring hostage rescues.
His legacy as his country’s longest serving leader will now be shaped by one of the worst security failures it has known and by the fate of more than 200 hostages seized by Palestinian Hamas gunmen from Gaza who Israel says killed 1,400 people on the deadliest day of its 75-year-old history.
The scale of the killing, accounts of trauma and images of the violence that emerged from the southern Israeli communities around Gaza have shaken the country.
In his sixth term as prime minister, Netanyahu, 74, heads one of Israel’s most extreme right-wing coalitions and has come under increasing pressure as the initial shock has given way to fury at the failures that allowed the attack to take place.
He has refused to accept responsibility, saying only that everyone will have to answer difficult questions when the war with Hamas is over, and in one of his rare press conferences, dismissed a question asking if he would resign.
But the mood of the country has turned, according to opinion polls showing a large majority blaming him, underpinned by images of cabinet ministers being abused in public when they step out of their official cars.
An October 18-19 Maariv newspaper poll showed former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, an opposition centrist party head in a newly formed unity government, was favoured for prime minister by 48 per cent of respondents, compared with only 28 per cent for Netanyahu.
“Netanyahu is going to go. Just like the top military, the intelligence and GSS (intelligence service) officials. Because they failed,” the daily newspaper Israel Hayom wrote in an editorial this week.
Facing trial on corruption charges, which he denies, his popularity had already been dented by a bitter battle over plans to curb the powers of the Supreme Court, which brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets for months.
For now, political consequences have been put on hold as Israeli jets carry out air strikes the Gaza health ministry says have killed at least 8,796 Palestinians and Israeli tanks have smashed their way deep into the blockaded enclave.
But much will depend on the result of the operation, whose declared aim is to destroy Hamas forever and whether his own party will continue to support him in the face of the increasingly loud calls for change.
“I’m not concerned about the polls, I am concerned about delivery of results and I think Prime Minister Netanyahu and the government must deliver,” said Danny Danon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and a member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party in parliament.
“We have seen too many cycles in the past where pressure forced the government not to complete the mission and to leave Hamas in power,” he said.
“If the government will not deliver what it promised which is the eradication of Hamas, I am sure it will not be accepted – not by the public and not by the political system.”
But the military test, though daunting enough on its own, is not the only challenge.
Netanyahu, who burned through the goodwill even of allies like the United States in the battle over judicial reform, is viewed with deep suspicion in much of the world due to his alliance with hardline religious and nationalist parties.
In addition to pressure over issues like the relentless expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, there has been mounting alarm internationally at the scale of casualties during the bombing of Gaza.
The economy, squeezed by the uncertainty over the judicial overhaul process, which was strongly opposed by most of the business community, has been further hit with businesses in sectors ranging from construction to food services reporting sharp drops in revenue.
Netanyahu, normally a smooth and assured figure, has appeared increasingly erratic, notably in an incident this week in which he sent out a late-night tweet blaming his intelligence chiefs for failing to warn him of the October 7 attack.
The tweet was deleted the following morning and Netanyahu issued an apology but the damage was done and there was a firestorm of criticism from the press and across the political spectrum.
“He is a man who is unfit to serve as prime minister,” an editorialist in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest selling newspaper, wrote this week, adding that Netanyahu should have resigned or been removed immediately after the October 7 attack.