Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is stuck between mounting international outcry over civilian casualties from his assault on the Gaza Strip and intensifying calls at home to finish the job he started.
Several of his top ministers are pushing for a full takeover of Gaza, which the prime minister has opposed, while even Israel’s allies, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have demanded an immediate halt to hostilities. Many Israelis, feeling more isolated than ever and outraged over the anti-Semitic tinge of pro-Palestinian demonstrations around the world, are wary of walking away before the tunnels into their territory uncovered by troops have been destroyed.
Mr. Netanyahu, known as a tough-talking but risk-averse hawk whose political life has been defined by security issues, agreed to a 12-hour pause in the fighting on Saturday, but not, so far, to Mr. Kerry’s broader cease-fire plan.
“When I see him on TV now, I see he is gray, you see he does not like the situation he is in,” said Yossi Verter, a political columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “He was always very tough with words and not tough with action — now he is tough with actions, but not so much tough,” Mr. Verter added. “He wants to end it, even though he knows he will pay a price.”
Israel’s 19-day air-and-ground assault on Gaza is by far the most significant military engagement of Mr. Netanyahu’s three terms in office. At first, he seemed to have built both unusual international leeway and a surprising consensus among his cabinet and constituents by embracing cease-fire initiatives, holding off a ground invasion and then setting a limited mission targeting the tunnels.
But with the Palestinian death toll topping 1,020, and 40 Israeli soldiers killed in action, the ground seems to have shifted. World leaders who had coupled their condemnations of civilian casualties in Gaza with criticism of Hamas, the militant Islamist faction that dominates Gaza, have at least changed the emphasis. Yet the apparent loss of Israel’s already slim support abroad has had something of a backlash effect here.
Michael B. Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, invoked the Hebrew phrase “Im kvar az kvar,” roughly akin to “in for a dime, in for a dollar.”
“If we’re getting slammed, we might as well go all the way,” Mr. Oren said to sum up the Israeli mood. “One of the big checks on Israel has been the fear of being isolated, the fear of being branded as immoral,” he said. “It’s having the exact opposite impact on policy — rather than being a check, it’s being a catalyst, it’s a motivating factor.”
Mr. Netanyahu, 64, is a former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, and his brother was killed in Israel’s 1976 hostage rescue at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, giving him credibility both with the military and with the families of fallen soldiers.
After a trying spring in which his governing coalition fragmented amid the failure of American-brokered peace talks and his own standing suffered from his clumsy meddling in Israel’s presidential election, the prime minister has recalibrated his persona in the current crisis. His near-daily televised statements have included subtle rhetorical shifts.
Several people who have been in the war room with Mr. Netanyahu said he was most enraged by the Federal Aviation Administration’s suspension of flights into Ben-Gurion International Airport after a rocket hit nearby, and by the opening of a war-crimes investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
He has prosecuted the campaign from his satellite office in the military’s Tel Aviv compound, where diplomatic visitors find a hallway filled with remnants of rockets and maps marking tunnels that troops have uncovered. He has not attended funerals, though his wife has quietly paid condolence calls.
Almost always by his side are his chief of staff, national security adviser and military attaché. Besides the defense minister, the politician spending the most time with Mr. Netanyahu is Tzipi Livni, the centrist justice minister who five years ago was his chief rival. Ms. Livni, a former foreign minister, is valued by the prime minister for her experience and standing among world leaders, several people around him said.
In his office and the cabinet room, where one session stretched more than seven hours, Mr. Netanyahu has set up his beloved white boards, and occasionally sketched diagrams of possible operations. He gives even those who disagree with him ample time to air their views — “sometimes maybe too much,” said Yuval Steinitz, the minister for strategic affairs. He rarely calls for votes, so far only to embrace Egypt’s initial cease-fire proposal on July 15, start the ground operation two days later and reject Mr. Kerry’s plan on Friday night.
“I can only compliment him, unfortunately,” said Yaakov Peri, a centrist minister and previous Netanyahu critic who sits in on the sessions. “It seems the steering is in the right hand in this conflict.”
Wars often quell political division, but Mr. Peri and others were still impressed by the breadth of backing. A poll of Israeli Jews conducted for Channel 2 News on Wednesday showed more than 8 in 10 were satisfied with Mr. Netanyahu, a 25 point jump from before the ground invasion began.
Over the past week, Mr. Netanyahu met in Israel with Mr. Kerry, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Italy and Norway. He visited troops preparing to enter Gaza on Monday, and those hospitalized with battle wounds on Tuesday. He did satellite interviews with four American news networks and two British channels that broadcast in Arabic over two days. (His office declined a request for an interview for this article.)
Yaakov Amidror, who served in the military with Mr. Netanyahu in 1969 and was his national security adviser until November, called him “a guy who has a historical view of events.”
“He understands that one of the most important differences between the past and the present is the ability of Jews to defend themselves,” Mr. Amidror said, using a frequent Netanyahu trope that has disappeared from his discourse these days. “If he feels that Israel might endanger its ability to defend itself because of the international community, he will decide to use the capabilities of Israel even against the international community.”
It was during one of the cabinet’s sessions last Sunday night that Mr. Netanyahu was handed a note with the news that Hamas claimed to have captured an Israeli soldier and had broadcast his name and identification number. He instructed his defense minister to inform the others, and then asked “if the family got all the information, which is very human,” said one person who was there. “And that’s it.”
By Friday night, the military had determined that the soldier was killed in action. His remains were not recovered, perhaps handing Hamas leverage in cease-fire negotiations. The prime minister did not issue any response.