Benjamin Netanyahu has dominated the political landscape in Israel for more than two decades but, almost one year after regaining the role of prime minister, an unprecedented attack by Hamas on Saturday looks set to shake his grip on power.
The shock attack by Hamas on Saturday has claimed over 1,000 lives in Israel and has set the stage for a new era in Israel-Palestine relations and Israeli politics.
In Israel, the event is being referred to as a national trauma equivalent to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that destroyed New York’s Twin Towers and sparked a US-led global “war on terror”.
Israeli retaliation for the attack has so far killed more than 1,000 in the Gaza strip, where Hamas holds power, and looks set to kill many more.
As macabre details of Saturday’s attack continue to emerge, the shock in Israel is still raw but there is also “palpable anger,” said Clive Jones, professor of regional security at the University of Durham.
The largest share of fury is directed at Hamas, Jones said, “but equally there’s a seething anger that this government – led by Netanyahu – has failed on issue of security”.
“There is commentary, even in centrist or slightly right-wing newspapers, that has said this is certainly the worst government that Israel has had and that it has damaged national security.”
Netanyahu has long been a divisive figure in Israeli politics, especially since he was re-elected prime minister in 2022.
His return to power – to reclaim a post he previously held for over a decade – was marred by accusations he intended to push through sweeping judicial reforms that would protect him from Israeli courts where he faces corruption charges that could lead to jail time.
His proposed judicial changes would hobble the Israeli courts’ power over the government, which critics argued would the country towards a constitutional crisis.
The deeply unpopular amendments sparked more than nine months of weekly protests bringing tens of thousands of people onto the streets in Israeli cities.
Opponents said the reforms would turn Israel into an illiberal democracy – an elected government that moves to restrict democratic rights and freedoms, in the style of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary.
Among the protesters were thousands of army reservists who threatened not to report for duty if the changes were pushed through, raising concerns about the military’s’ capacity to respond to large-scale attacks.
Under Netanyahu’s leadership, “Israel was deeply, deeply divided in a way that it hasn’t been ever in its history since the foundation of the state in 1948,” said Jones.
Yet the prime minister’s reaction to Saturday’s attack has provoked a more unified response.
In the wake of the Hamas attacks, chaos and confusion ruled – and Netanyahu seemed to be keeping a low profile, aside from a pre-recorded video released on social media platform X announcing that the country was now at war.
“We’re seeing an astonishing, historic and almost incomprehensible dearth of leadership… Israelis have yet to see a single one of their leaders stand in front of cameras and actually address them live,” freelance journalist Noga Tarnopolsky told FRANCE 24 from Jerusalem on Saturday afternoon.
As questions mounted over how the Israeli secret service had failed to intercept such a large-scale attack by Hamas, blame for the slow military response were directed at Netanyahu and his government.
In order to form a government that would return him to power and pass his controversial judicial reforms, Netanyahu partnered with figures from the Israeli far right. He handed the role of national security minister to Itamar Ben-Gvir, a forceful, provocative advocate for the extension of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“Many people would argue that settlers had great support within cabinet, almost having a carte blanche to do what they want to do in the West Bank,” said Jones.
Along with the plans to build thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers came a surge in violence in the West Bank that redirected military reinforcement away from the Gaza Strip and towards the larger Palestinian territory.
“Attention was diverted to managing situations in the West Bank being caused by expansionist settler programmes,” said Melanie Garson, associate professor in international security at University College London.
Meanwhile, for months the Israeli army “has been warning of a multi-front attack that would attack the Israeli civilian population, and the Israeli government ignored the army”, said Tarnopolsky.
An Egyptian official on Monday told AFP that its intelligence service had also warned Israel that Hamas was planning a large-scale operation, including a direct notice from Cairo’s intelligence minister to Netanyahu. Distracted by the West Bank, Israel “ignored” the warnings, the intelligence official said.
Netanyahu denied receiving advance warning of the Hamas attack from Egypt.
In the aftermath of tragedy, the Israeli leader has promised a war against Hamas that will exact a “huge price”. And for now, there seems to be little appetite for a political reckoning against the prime minister, despite public anger.
“People and the government will galvanise behind him, and they’ll find strong unity because you can’t fight domestic war when you’ve got to fight an external one,” explained Garson.
Netanyahu on Wednesday announced the establishment of an emergency unity government and war cabinet that would reintegrate moderate political leaders with proven security expertise into key roles.
Months or weeks ago, a moderate government may have gone some way towards healing political divisions in Israel. But current unity is unlikely to last beyond the uncertainty of war, and Netanyahu’s perceived failings are so great that they will not easily be forgotten, Garson said.
“It will be very hard for Netanyahu to avoid culpability for not having the mechanisms in place to protect people who live by the border with Gaza.”
“Netanyahu was elected on the basis of providing the one core thing that ultimately most Israelis want, which is security – that has clearly failed,” added Jones.
Official inquiries into the Hamas attacks are also likely to find failings in security, strategy and leadership that will fall on Netanyahu’s shoulders. “I would be surprised if he was still in office in a year’s time,” said Jones.
The result would be the fall of a political giant who has dominated Israeli politics for more than two decades.
But in a country that is likely to elect its next leader in the wake of national trauma and a spiralling war, Garson is not sure Netanyahu will be missed: “I don’t think the country will feel a vacuum after what it’s going through, because it will be an entirely new era that will emerge.”