TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — In the wake of Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s days in office seemed numbered.
Despite his reputation as the ultimate political survivor, the devastation of the attack and the security failures that allowed it to happen on his watch appeared to be too much for him to overcome.
But nearly three months after war erupted following the attack, Netanyahu remains firmly in charge and is putting up a fight. He has increasingly used his perch as wartime leader to test campaign slogans, appease his coalition partners and shirk responsibility for the calamity — all, critics say, with an eye on buying time and notching up his shrinking poll numbers.
“Every moment of his life, he is a politician,” said Mazal Mualem, a Netanyahu biographer. “Bibi always thinks he has a chance.”
Netanyahu — who’s served longer than any other Israeli leader, after 17 years in power — has found a formula for success. He appeals to his nationalist base, crafts a catchy political message, and pits his rivals and opponents against one another.
Critics say his aspiration for political redemption is clouding his wartime decision-making and dividing a nation striving for unity.
“It is no longer the good of the country Netanyahu is thinking about, but his own political and legal salvation,” wrote military commentator Amos Harel, in the liberal daily Haaretz.
Other critics have said Netanyahu has an interest in dragging out the war to regain public support through military achievements, such as the apparent Israeli strike Tuesday on Hamas’ second-in-command in Beirut, or in hopes that time might work in his favor as the nation still reels from Hamas’ onslaught.
Supporters say he’s been unfairly demonized and that engaging in politics even amid war is unavoidable.
Netanyahu has long been polarizing. In the leadup to the war, Israelis had endured years of political turmoil, facing five elections in four years, each a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while on trial for corruption. Netanyahu has used his office to fight the charges that could send him to prison, making it a bully pulpit to rally supporters and lash out against prosecutors and judges.
Former political allies turned on the long-serving leader. Unable to form a coalition government, Netanyahu was ousted for a year. When he returned to office at the end of 2022, he cobbled together the country’s most nationalist and religious coalition ever.
That coalition’s first step was to launch a controversial legal overhaul plan that prompted months of mass street protests and bitterly divided the country.
Many reservists, who make up the backbone of Israel’s military, said they wouldn’t turn up for service as long as the government pursued the legal changes. Top brass from the security establishment, including the country’s defense minister, warned that the divisions sowed by the plan were harmful to security.
The Oct. 7 attacks, in which Hamas killed 1,200 people and kidnapped 240 others, caught Israel at its most divided.
While Israelis quickly rallied behind the military, Netanyahu and his Likud party took a hit in opinion polls. They show Israelis now believe Netanyahu is less fit to govern than Benny Gantz, a rival who agreed to join Netanyahu in an emergency wartime Cabinet. Polls also show Netanyahu’s coalition wouldn’t win re-election.
As the war churns on, Netanyahu has refused to discuss his political future and berated journalists for asking him about it.
“I am stunned. I am just stunned. Our soldiers are fighting in Gaza. Our soldiers are dying in battle. The families of the hostages are in a huge nightmare, and this is what you have to do? There will be a time for politics,” he said in response to one question about his public support.
Yet critics say Netanyahu is increasingly engaging in politicking.
While a long list of security officials have taken responsibility for failures surrounding Oct. 7, Netanyahu has not, saying only that he has tough questions to answer once the war is over. He has gone so far as to blame his security chiefs.
Live broadcasts meant to update the nation on the war’s progress have often felt more like stump speeches.
“I won’t allow Hamastan to be replaced by Fatahstan,” he said during one news conference, rebuffing a U.S.-backed idea that a revitalized Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction, will govern Gaza.
Netanyahu also has maneuvered between his nationalist coalition government and the downsized yet influential War Cabinet, whose members hold more moderate opinions on how Gaza might be ruled and rehabilitated after the war.
That juggling has delayed any decision about Israel’s post-war plans, to Washington’s chagrin. Netanyahu also has moved ahead on contentious budgets for his ultranationalist coalition partners, even as the country braces for the economic aftershocks of the war.
Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu aide, said the leader’s moves appear intended to set him on better political footing ahead of elections.
Without publicly taking responsibility for any role in the Oct. 7 failures, Israeli media won’t have a damning soundbite they can play once elections roll around. Taking a firm stance against the Palestinian Authority’s role in Gaza distinguishes him from rival Gantz, who hasn’t said whether he’d agree to its inclusion, Bushinsky said.
Avraham Diskin, a veteran political analyst who has served as an informal adviser to Netanyahu, said the prime minister was simply responding to a virulent campaign by opponents that has intensified during the war.
“Is it he who is campaigning or them?” he said.
That hasn’t stopped some supporters from calling for Netanyahu to announce that he intends to step down in the near future.
Veteran Israeli journalist Nadav Shragai wrote in the conservative, Netanyahu-friendly Israel Hayom daily: “How good and how correct it would be if after so many years on the job, Netanyahu were to bring himself to this war without suspicion he is acting out of political interest or egocentrism and is focused only on the objectives of the war?”