Benjamin Netanyahu has a residence in a leafy street of Jerusalem, near a sushi restaurant, wine bar and bomb shelter.
But as the war against Hamas rages on into a third month, Israel’s prime minister is rarely at home: instead, he splits his time between the Knesset and the Hakirya, or “Campus”, an area in Tel Aviv where the military is headquartered.
Bibi — a childhood nickname he has not shaken off — has won six elections. As the country’s longest-serving prime minister, he has held the post for a total of 16 years, with ambitions to continue for longer.
In all his time as Israel’s leader, Netanyahu, 74, has never wielded more power. It is he, a former special forces soldier himself, who will decide how hard Israel pushes the next phase of its war into Gaza. It is he who will make the call to end the operation. And, if he survives long enough in the post, he will decide what “the day after” the war will look like.
“He’s in control,” says Richard Pater, director of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. He knows “the worst thing you can do in politics is to take your hands off the wheel”.
So far, Israel claims it has killed a total of 5000 Hamas fighters out of the group’s armed wing of 30,000 strong. But the senior leaders of the October 7 operation remain alive.
Meanwhile, global pressure is rising over the Palestinian death toll, now at a staggering 18,000, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza.
How far, exactly, Netanyahu will heed growing overtures from Britain and America, its closest ally, to spare civilian lives depends in part on the temperature of national politics.
Before the war broke out, Netanyahu was already on the back foot, becoming prime minister again thanks to a deal with Israel’s hard right, making for a fractious coalition.
He was — and still is — embroiled in a years-long corruption trial.
Hundreds of thousands of people this year took to the streets to protest against a judicial overhaul many felt gave the government too much power over the country’s supreme court.
‘It happened on his watch’
When Hamas terrorists stormed across the border on October 7, killing 1200 people and capturing 240 hostages, many blamed dysfunction in Netanyahu’s government for the security lapse.
“It’s both searing disappointment that he allowed this to happen, and that it happened on his watch,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political strategist and public opinion expert at the Century Foundation, a think tank in Tel Aviv. “He has the responsibility of being the leader when this happened.”
Wartime leaders often benefit from the public rallying behind the flag. There remains much scepticism about Netanyahu, but many citizens appear willing to put their feelings aside until the heaviest of the fighting is over.
“He needs to continue, to make Hamas disappear,” said Avram Levy, 73, a fruit vendor at a central market in Jerusalem.
“If there is one Hamas guy, without legs and without a right arm, but with his left hand makes a victory sign — we lost.”
Netanyahu has “got the temper of a strong leader”, said Levy, whose son, 42, is fighting in the war. “He doesn’t break.”
Above all, many Israelis feel another attack like October 7 must be prevented.
Eighty-seven per cent of Jewish Israelis said they supported the resumption of fighting after the recent ceasefire, according to a survey released last week by the Israel Democracy Institute.
On November 18, families of the hostages arrived at the gates of Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem after a march from Tel Aviv to demand he take more action to bring their loved ones home.
His relationship with these citizens, the most intensely vulnerable in the nation, has been rocky.
Their demands for prioritising the fate of their family members over flattening Gaza are not as easy to discount as external calls for restraint.
‘I wanted him gone before; now I want him gone more’
Many of those taken and slaughtered that day in October came from left-wing kibbutzim that were already profoundly opposed to Netanyahu’s rule.
“I wanted him gone before; now I want him gone even more,” said Ayelet Hakim, 55, a resident of kibbutz Be’eri, where more than 100 people were slaughtered on October 7.
That day, she spent 17 hours with her husband and two children, 4 and 11, hiding in their safe room as attackers surrounded their house. She sent what she thought would be her last text messages to her 29-year-old son, reminding him to take care of himself.
While the family survived, her sister, Raz Ben-Ami, 57, was taken by Hamas.
She was released in the recent hostage exchange after being held for 54 days. But her husband, Ohad Ben-Ami, is among the 137 hostages who remain in captivity.
Upon Raz’s release, she immediately began campaigning fiercely for the freedom of her husband.
But she has been so enraged by lack of government action that she walked out of a group meeting between hostage families and Netanyahu last Wednesday, recounted Hakim.
Netanyahu should “should give the keys to somebody else, and let somebody else handle this”, Hakim said from a hotel in Ein Bokek, a Dead Sea resort town where Be’eri residents have lived since the attack.
Once the hostages are freed, many of the victims of Hamas’ atrocities in the kibbutzim agree with Netanyahu’s overarching desire to rewrite the entire nature of the Gaza Strip.
Hakim admits there may be no other way forward but to engage in war.
“I think that Palestinians and me, [we] are the same now; we are both not safe,” she said. “Our lives will be better if there will be no Hamas — that’s what I want.
“Hamas is a terrorist group that should be eliminated,” she said. “I want Hamas to be gone from this world, and then the Palestinians can live safely in Gaza the way I want to live safely in Be’eri.”
Miriam Gad-Messika, 45, also a Be’eri resident, said she’d feel safe once the Israeli military “will finish what it started — that we see the sea, the shore,” referring to the coastline along Gaza — a view from her home blocked by the Strip. “Maybe there will be no Gaza anymore.”
“The Palestinians have many countries that can embrace them,” she said. “Israel is so small, that if they don’t want to live with us, if they don’t want to be at peace with us — so, go! They don’t need to be here.”
In Gaza today, many Palestinians are finding they have nowhere to go. The war has displaced about 80 per cent of the population, according to the United Nations.
Deafening bombs now fall across major cities across Gaza, many targeting the south, after the first phase of the operation levelled much of the north.
Rubble, dirt and dust are all that’s left of what used to be bakeries and homes. Dried blood cakes the floors of abandoned hospitals, as described by residents to The Telegraph.
Food, fuel and water are scarce; disease is running rampant, humanitarian organisations have warned. Scores of people have been buried in mass graves.
‘I try to avoid looking in the eyes of my kids’
“I try to avoid looking in the eyes of my kids,” says Sami Abu Salem, 52, a father of four in central Gaza who has been forced to sleep outside on some nights without any shelter.
“They look at me with strong eyes. I feel that they are telling me, ‘please do something for us, we are feeling cold, we are hungry’.”
Like Abu Salem, Umm Osama Haneya, a mother of three, has moved several times since the war broke out, ending up in the southern city of Khan Younis where Israel is now involved in heavy door-to-door fighting against Hamas.
“It’s not safe to move around,” Haneya, 34, told The Telegraph. “My three-year-old daughter trembles when there are airstrikes.”
The Israeli military has issued evacuation orders instructing Haneya and others to move further south to Rafah, a city that straddles the border between Gaza and Egypt.
But without relatives or friends there, she is hesitant.
The ideal option would be to journey home to northern Gaza — an impossibility as war blazes on.
“During the truce, I tried to find out if my house in the north was still standing,” she said. “But I simply couldn’t get any information.”
Her family also can’t afford the 1000 Israeli shekels (NZ$440) needed to buy a tent, though that would offer no protection against bombs, and little against winter temperatures falling to 10C at night.
“I am trapped,” says Haneya.
If Netanyahu is thinking about what to do the “day after” the war, Israeli voters are also weighing up what to do with him.
Boaz Tzidkiyahu, the owner of a popular eponymous deli in Jerusalem, lost faith in Netanyahu after October 7. “I am not supporting him anymore because of the colossal mess of the war,” the 62-year-old said, surrounded by an array of olives and pickles.