Israel’s move

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

Where might Israel and Netanyahu go after the Iran episode, asks Dina Ezzat

Israel s move


Two days after Iran’s drones-and-missiles attack on Israel at midnight on Saturday, the world was still waiting for the Israeli reaction. Senior Israeli officials, including top military figures, were promising that the Iranian attack on Israel would not go unpunished. For their part, top Iranian officials also promised to hit back more forcefully should Israel retaliate. Iran had said that its limited and largely unharmful attack on Israel was a response to the Israeli attack on Iran’s Consulate in Damascus which killed a senior Revolutionary Guards figure. In case of a new Israeli attack, Iranian top political and military figures say Iran will hit back more forcefully.

Meanwhile, influential world capitals including Washington, which had promised unconditional support for Israel in the face of any Iranian attack, have been intensifying diplomatic calls to cut short future attacks in either direction, and prevent the situation from getting out of hand. In an emergency UN Security Council meeting that convened Sunday to discuss the Iranian attack on Israel, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that neither the Middle East nor the world could take further military escalation.

According to Cairo-based foreign diplomats and diplomatic sources in European capitals, all world leaders who had been prompt and unconditional in condemning the Iranian attack on Israel and helping the Israeli military intercept some 300 drones and missiles that Iran fired at them, mostly from Iranian territories, are now actively calling on Israel not to go too far in its response. A Washington-based diplomatic source said that US President Joe Biden had been particularly forceful in his demand of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu not to take an extreme course. “It is most likely that Netanyahu will accommodate Biden on this one but again it all depends on his own political calculations because it is only very obvious that what matters most for Netanyahu is his political survival,” the source said.

The nature of Israel’s possible reaction to Iran’s calculated retaliatory attack has been subject to discussion within Israel, both at the public and official levels. It has also been subject to discussion among Israeli officials and their Western allies. There has been speculation in the Israeli and Western press on a range of scenarios that include a surgical military attack on Iranian targets and nuclear facilities in and outside Iran and even cyber attacks.

The one thing that all diplomatic and analytical speculations agreed on is that neither Israel, as a government and military whose creed is deterrence-based, nor Netanyahu, who is being blamed for having placed Israel, in the span of six months, under two unprecedented attacks, first from Hamas during Al-Aqsa Flood on 7 October, and then from Iran on 13 April, can afford to let the Iranian attack pass with no retaliation. For Netanyahu not to retaliate would be in even more of a fix than he already is with the Gaza mess, despite the huge damage the Israeli war on Gaza has wrecked in under 200 days. The nature of the response will have to be designed to secure three political and two military objectives.

On the political front, the reaction needs to improve the political and military image of Netanyahu inside Israel, especially within his own constituency, which has been blaming him for his failure to bring back Israeli hostages captured on 7 October. It has to secure the momentum of the international solidarity with Israel ignited by the Iranian attack, harmless as it was, in the wake of a lot of international political pressure on Israel following the cost of its brutality in Gaza. And it has to benefit from both first and second to secure the delicate political balance within Netanyahu’s own coalition to keep him in office.

On the military front, Netanyahu needs to secure the continued international-regional military cooperation that has helped Israel intercept the drones and missiles, to the extent that Israel announced that almost 99 per cent of these drones and missiles were gunned down. Secondly, he needs to secure and maintain the military support that Israel had found in many world capitals, especially Washington, which had moved in less than two weeks from the unprecedented moment of calling for a suspension of sending arms to Israel, in the wake of Israel killing of seven international aid workers in Gaza earlier this month, to a consolidated support to pass a stand-alone military aid package to help Israel in its confrontation with Iran.

According to Omar Moneib, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk assessment company, Netanyahu seems to have three choices. The first is for Israel to hit hard, with the anticipation that Iran will hit back – thus expanding the war zone to give Israel more space to attack Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon, with limited international outcry. “Obviously, this will be a big strategic gain for Israel and specifically for Netanyahu,” Moneib said. But nobody knows for sure the true and full extent of Iran’s military capacity, he added, and consequently nobody could tell with absolute certainty the kind of arms that Iran will use in its second retaliatory hit.

“This is a scenario with a considerable blind spot,” Moneib said. He explained that the nature of the Iranian reaction could end up being costly for Netanyahu internally. This choice also comes with a lot of concern from world powers that Netanyahu was glad to regain after months of tension over his management of the war on Gaza.

The second choice for Netanyahu is to wait for a few days or a few weeks and then conduct some attacks without necessarily claiming responsibility, “as Israel had done before”. According to Moneib this will not be a first and there is a chance that “Iran could swallow it, as it did with similar attacks before.” He added that this second choice would be more appreciated by the concerned world powers and would still enable Netanyahu to secure a political gain that could keep his government floating for a few more months. “Ultimately, this choice will be much better for Israel’s objective of improving its social media image that has suffered considerably with the war on Gaza.”

The third scenario, Moneib said, is for Netanyahu to choose a military target away from Iranian territories and carry on a limited attack that would send a clear message about Israel’s ability to deter and to retaliate. This option, he added, will secure Netanyahu more international support, both at the official and public levels, while keeping the game open for a possible new round some other time at some other terms with Iran. It is only when Netanyahu acts, Moneib said, that the next phase will be decided.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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