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The impact of the Israel-Hamas crisis on Prime Minister Netanyahu's political future

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Hamas attack against Israel on October 7 was widely viewed as a failure of the country's much-vaunted security network. Many blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for that. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Jerusalem on the impact that the crisis will have on Netanyahu's reputation and legacy.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For the nearly 16 years that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been in power, he's tried to carry the mantle of Mr. Security. Under his watch, Israel built what was supposed to be the region's most powerful military and sophisticated intelligence apparatus. That veneer of security shattered when Hamas militants launched the multipronged attack on the country, leaving 1,400 dead and Netanyahu's reputation dangling by a thread.

MAZAL MUALEM: I don't think that Netanyahu will be able to survive this crisis.

NORTHAM: Mazal Mualem is an Israeli political analyst and the author of "Cracking The Netanyahu Code." She says Netanyahu is a wily politician who has survived many crises over his career. But the Hamas attacks were seen as the biggest security breach since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

MUALEM: The failure of Netanyahu is huge precisely because of the image he built all of his political career as the great defender of Israel's security.

NORTHAM: Days after the attack, the polls were unforgiving, says Dalia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based pollster and political analyst.

DALIA SCHEINDLIN: Vast majorities of the public blame the government, view this as a leadership debacle, hold the government responsible for creating the conditions that led to the collapse of the defense systems of the south. And Netanyahu's ratings as, you know, suitability to be prime minister have really plunged.

NORTHAM: Even in the months before the Hamas attacks, Netanyahu's leadership was marked with controversies. He's on trial facing corruption charges, which he denies. He formed a government with hard-right nationalists, tried to weaken Israeli Supreme Court and pushed for more settlements in the West Bank. He was seen as divisive, but some Israelis don't think it's time for a change.

ABRAHAM BAAL-GIG: I think this is the right leader at the moment. I don't know somebody better than him.

ARIELE ELBALM: We have no choice now. The reality is he's the Prime Minister, and he have to go to do his job.

NORTHAM: That's 70-year-old Abraham Baal-Gig and a 60-year-old lawyer named Ariele Elbalm. Netanyahu's fate as prime minister could rest on how he handles the aftermath of the attacks. And that means going to war, says Diana Buttu, an attorney and author who has advised Palestinian negotiators in past peace talks.

DIANA BUTTU: He knows his political survival at this point depends on how much he flattens Gaza. And, I mean, I hate to be so crude, but this is the equation. And that's why his government is pushing so hard for it.

NORTHAM: And that war could buy Netanyahu some time, says Tal Schneider, a political columnist with The Times of Israel.

TAL SCHNEIDER: We definitely need to focus right now on stopping the rockets, bringing home the abducted and doing everything we can to just get rid of this terror regime. And this is the main focus. If you ask me on priorities, having Netanyahu stepping aside - maybe next in line but not today.

NORTHAM: Danny Danon, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N., says Netanyahu has had many successes while in office, such as the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and some Gulf nations, but that Netanyahu's political fortunes may depend largely on how well he handles a ground incursion into Gaza.

DANNY DANON: He did a lot of great things for the nation, and everything else will not be remembered if we will not be victorious on this war. So he has a lot on his shoulders.

NORTHAM: Danon says it's more than pulverizing Hamas and Gaza. Netanyahu will have to rebuild the country's trust in government.

DANON: As of now, you know, the people in Israel - they feel that we are vulnerable, that we are under attack. And I think we, the leadership, will have to restore the feeling of security among Israelis.

NORTHAM: Otherwise, for all his years in power, Netanyahu could be remembered for what happened October 7. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.