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Iran Attack Tests Netanyahu’s Political Staying Power

In a deeply divided Israel, even the dramatic scene above the country’s skies on Sunday is open to political interpretation.

For supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s display of defensive technology against an Iranian salvo that included hundreds of drones and missiles proves Mr. Netanyahu has long been right to warn about the threat posed by Iran.

His opponents are loath to give him any credit, reserving their praise for the air force.

“Like everything in Israel in recent years, the story is split into two narratives,” said Mazal Mualem, an Israeli political commentator for Al-Monitor, a Middle East news site, and the author of a recent biography of the Israeli leader.

“The division and polarization in Israeli society prevents people from seeing the full picture,” Ms. Mualem added.

Iran’s barrage on Sunday, launched in response to an Israeli attack on an Iranian Embassy building this month in Damascus that killed several high-ranking commanders in Iran’s armed forces, came at a perilous time for Mr. Netanyahu.

At home, he is an unpopular leader whom many hold responsible for his government’s policy and intelligence failures that led to the deadly Hamas-led attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7, which prompted Israel to go to war in Gaza. Abroad, he is the focus of international censure over Israel’s prosecution of that war, which has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Gazans.

How he ultimately emerges from this episode may depend on what happens next.

Mr. Netanyahu now must make a choice. Will he respond to Iran with a forceful counterattack and potentially entangle Israel and other countries in a broader war? Or will he absorb the attack, which gravely injured one 7-year-old girl but otherwise did limited damage, and defer to the coalition that helped defend Israel in the interests of regional stability?

Israel’s allies have been urging restraint.

“The question is whether Israel is going to retaliate immediately, or surprise the Iranians in one way or another,” said Efraim Halevy, who served as director of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, during the latter part of Mr. Netanyahu’s first term in the 1990s.

Regardless of what comes next, Ms. Mualem, the Netanyahu biographer, said, “Bibi is still in the game,” referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname. “He’s a central player and it isn’t over, diplomatically or politically,” she said. “And he plays a long game.”

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