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14 April 2024updated 15 Apr 2024 10:06am

Israel can prevent a regional war 

It’s not yet clear how far Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will go in response to Iran’s attack.

By Jasmine El-Gamal

It was an attack the world saw coming. On the evening of 13 April, Iran launched an estimated 185 drones and 146 missiles from its territory in an unprecedented direct attack on Israel. A smaller number of projectiles were launched by Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Yemen. The attack was in retaliation for the Israeli bombing of an Iranian diplomatic facility in Syria on the 1 April, which killed a senior commander in the al-Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). There were mercifully few casualties in Iran’s attack; most projectiles were intercepted before reaching Israel’s borders. Yet the incident had the region on edge for hours, with many wondering if this was the move that would set the Middle East on fire.

It turned out not to be… for now. Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian claims that the regime gave notice of the operation to “friends and neighbours in the region” 72 hours prior to the attack. The drones sent from Iranian territory that were not intercepted took several hours to reach Israeli territory. Short of sending carrier pigeons signalling the impending attack, it is difficult to view Iran’s move, despite its unprecedented nature and enormous scope, as anything other than a carefully telegraphed message: a show of force meant to serve as a deterrent, not an escalation.

Notwithstanding the merits – or lack thereof – of Iran’s strategy in undertaking this attack, it took the bait in responding to the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reckless bombing of Iranian interests in a third country. One can see why Iran felt it had to respond to save face after the attack on its facilities and personnel in Syria. Yet there was a strategic flaw in the timing of its attack. Israel’s war in Gaza was fast losing momentum and international support. With this attack, Israel’s allies – all worried about an uncontrollable widening of the conflict – came to the country’s aid and intercepted a majority of the projectiles. Netanyahu can claim victory at home as he protected Israelis and any Western talk of conditioning military assistance to Israel has been silenced for the foreseeable future.

It may seem tempting to Netanyahu to respond to Iran’s attack with a forceful counter-attack, though an all-out regional war is clearly not in Israel’s interest. There are indeed voices in Israel calling for precisely such a response. This would be a mistake. Joe Biden informed Netanyahu during a call after the attack that the US will not support or take part in any Israeli offensive operation against Iran, fearing the catastrophic consequences of a regional war. Instead, Biden urged Netanyahu to “take the win”.

Meanwhile, the West’s adversaries, Russia and China, never ones to miss an opportunity to cynically play the part of the so-called adults in the room, are expressing “concern” and urging “restraint”. It’s a message that resonates with war-weary audiences across the region. All the while, Israel’s war in Gaza and the lack of a political horizon for a peaceful solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict looms in the background.

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If the response to Iran’s attack by the US and its allies proved anything, it is that Israel cannot achieve its security through military means alone. The path to long-term security for Israel, and the solution to the decades-long Middle East conflict, cannot bypass a just solution of two states living side-by-side, despite the fantasies of messianic right-wing Israeli politicians. Israel cannot afford to be a pariah in the region; the world clearly witnessed how it cannot defend itself without help from both the US and regional players. Healing the ever-deepening rifts with regional states is what Israel needs – not more conflict.

To achieve the former, including restarting normalisation talks with Saudi Arabia, Israel must end the war on Gaza now. For its part, Hamas needs to move forward on negotiations and release the Israeli hostages. The US needs to continue pushing for both, while working to prevent Netanyahu from resuming his battering of Gaza afterwards. Finally, Iran must now do its part to de-escalate. It has already begun doing so by releasing a statement once its projectiles were in the air, saying it considered the matter now finished (albeit warning that an Israeli counter-attack will not go unpunished). Having achieved a face-saving “non-retaliation retaliation”, now is the time for Iran to stand back and order its proxies to do the same.  

It is well past time for calm, rational leadership – across the region – that works towards a political pathway to lasting peace and stability. It’s unclear at the moment whether Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to show restraint or whether Joe Biden will use his considerable leverage as Israel’s greatest ally to ensure it. But the price for the region, and the world, in escalating this crisis further will be too high.

Jasmine El-Gamal is an independent analyst and former Middle East adviser at the Pentagon.

[See also: The Iran attack changes everything]

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