Israel has not yet voiced a clear position on the mounting US-Iran crisis which is inching closer and closer to war. When commenting on the subject, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu chooses his words carefully so as not to appear to be openly encouraging Washington to take military action against Iran.
“I repeat my call for all peace-loving countries to stand by the United States in its effort to stop Iranian aggression. Israel stands by the United States on this,” he said in a statement last week. When asked about speculation in the press that Iran might retaliate against Israel in response to a US strike, Netanyahu merely stated, following an intensive military drill in northern Israel, “The IDF has an immense destructive power. Do not test us.”
So, why is Israel being so circumspect?
To Avoid Provoking US Opinion
Netanyahu knows that by openly prodding Washington to bomb Iran he will trigger an adverse reaction towards Israel among the US public.
The majority of Americans do not want to get involved in a war for which they see no strong reasons as far as US interests are concerned, especially a war that would cost the lives of US soldiers and dig deeply into taxpayers’ pockets for years to come.
According to a survey published by Reuters on 21 May, 53 per cent of Americans considered Iran as either a “serious” or “imminent” threat to the US.
Yet, 60 per cent opposed a pre-emptive attack against Iran while 40 per cent held that if the US were forced to attack, the offensive should be restricted to limited aerial strikes and not involve boots on the ground.
At another level, many members of Congress and many US academics have voiced deep concerns regarding Israeli policies and how they have driven US foreign policies even to the detriment of US interests.
Echoes of The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, the study by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that appeared in 2007, still resound today whenever there looms a possibility of US military intervention in the Middle East and especially one undertaken on behalf of Israel.
The study attempted to establish how pro-Israeli policies, adopted under pressure of AIPAC, have harmed US interests and national security.
Otherwise put, Netanyahu wants to avoid being seen as prodding Washington into a strike against Iran today because the majority of the Americans believe that Netanyahu had prodded Trump into withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which set the current escalatory cycle into motion to begin with.
The Iraq Complex
Although Israel knows that it is not on the top of the list of Iranian reprisal targets in the event of a war between it and the US, it bases its calculations on its experience during the war to liberate Kuwait in 1991.
Iraq, at the time, fired some 40 ballistic missiles at Israel. Yet the US refused to allow Israel to strike back so as not to jeopardise the alliance it had forged with moderate Arab states in order to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.
Israel fears that if it becomes too visibly involved in the current escalation, Tehran will notch it up on its retaliation list which, depending on how the situation escalates, might look as follows: military and industrial installations and commercial ships belonging to Gulf countries, US commercial ships, locations in Israel, US bases in Gulf countries, US naval vessels.
Although Israel will be capable of retaliating and inflicting great damage on Iranian industrial and military installations, Israel would risk considerable damage as well in the event of intensive missile fire, whether from Iran directly or, more likely, from Hizbullah’s arsenal in Lebanon.
In fact, the Israeli political analyst Chemi Shalev suggests the possibility of just such a scenario. In Haaretz of 18 June he writes that, in the event that Hassan Nasrallah carries out an order from Tehran to bombard Israel, “Hizbullah could impose a harsh military campaign on Israel. In a worst-case but nonetheless plausible scenario, Hizbullah could fire thousands and thousands of guided and unguided rockets and missiles on Israeli strategic targets and civilian population centres. Many of these missiles carry a 500-kilogram or 750-pound explosive device, capable of flattening a city street and killing anyone within a 100-metre range.”
The Israeli security expert Ephraim Kam agrees that the greatest danger to Israel in the event that hostilities erupt between the US and Iran is that the latter would retaliate with massive missile fire, most likely via Hizbullah.
“Hizbullah’s missile and rocket arsenal is the largest and most important that Iran has built for its proxies,” he writes in the Strategic Assessment periodical of April 2019, adding that this arsenal comprises 150,000 rockets and missiles of diverse ranges and some of which have a high degree of precision and destructive power.
It appears, therefore, that Israel is treading carefully so as to keep itself out of the crosshairs of possible Iranian reprisals should tensions between Washington and Tehran spill over the brink into war.
Israel’s fear, here, stems not from potential military losses but from the spectre of the enormous human toll that it would sustain should Iranian and/or Hizbullah reprisals target densely populated urban centres.
To Clip The Iranian Regime's Wings, But Not Topple It
Even if Israel had a strong interest in a US strike targeting Iranian nuclear, economic and industrial capacities, it understands the dangerous risks of such a step, as indicated above. Any attempt to destroy Iran and overthrow its theocratic rule would inevitably court an extremely powerful and destructive response targeting population centres in Israel.
To avoid such a scenario Israel would rather avert the spectre of an all-out war. Instead, it prefers tougher sanctions while keeping the US military presence in the Gulf as a deterrent. This is why Netanyahu called on countries to stand by the US.
He wants to promote widespread support for the boycott against Iran in order to force Tehran back to the negotiating table without conditions, which is what Trump wants. At that point, Israel will work to influence the negotiations in order to achieve three basic aims:
- To reduce Iranian uranium enrichment capacities to a point where Iran could never manufacture a nuclear weapon.
- To limit Iranian missile experiments and subject these to international supervision.
- To end all forms of Iranian military presence in Syria and to minimise Iranian military and weapons support for Hizbullah.
It is difficult to imagine that Israel could accomplish these ends. But it is conceivable that it could win tangible Iranian concessions in these directions. Of course, much would depend on the damage inflicted on Iran by tougher sanctions and Iran’s ability to hold out against the political and economic boycott.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Israel and the US-Iran crisis