Comment: Israel should choose reasoning over posturing

It will do as it determines, but retaliation against Iran bears the consequences of further exchanges.

By Daniel DePetris / For the Chicago Tribune

Of all the retaliatory options against Israel that Iran had on its table, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei chose the most bombastic: a direct missile and drone strike launched from Iranian soil. Iran’s attack, came about two weeks after Israel bombed an Iranian diplomatic facility in Damascus, Syria, killing one of its top generals, which was simply too much for the Iranians to take on the chin.

The question was never whether Iran would respond but rather how. The fact the Iranians felt the need to send more than 300 projectiles toward Israel, a salvo that included ballistic and cruise missiles, was as unprecedented as it was dangerous. There have been plenty of Iranian-sponsored attacks against Israeli interests around the world, but never before in history has Iran conducted an overt attack on Israel from within its own borders. The killing of one of its top military commanders, which occurred during daylight hours in the middle of the Syrian capital, was in Tehran’s view such an attrocity that nothing less than a flashy display of force was required. Israel set a precedent by dropping a bomb on an extension of the Iranian embassy in Syria; Iran, in return, decided to set one of its own.

Yet if Iranian officials sought to inflict maximum damage inside Israel, they ended the night disappointed. The drones Iran sent into the air were slow, akin to crows flying straight into the wind, providing Israel and its partners in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Jordan with the opportunity to prepare. The vast majority of the cruise and ballistic missiles couldn’t escape Israeli air defenses; a few landed on Israeli soil but caused only minor damage. It was a miracle nobody in Israel was killed. By the time the hourslong attack was over, the Israelis only registered one casualty: a wounded girl who is now in the hospital.

As the old saying goes, what’s done is done. The most important question over coming days is how Israel chooses to respond.

Competing interests are at play here. For starters, Iran has packaged last weekend’s operation as an anomaly, a necessary but extremely rare event that was only undertaken because Israel was brazen enough to assassinate high-ranking members of the Iranian military. The Iranian Foreign Ministry has said the matter is over unless Israel takes further action of its own. If Israel does, the Iranian military’s chief of staff said, Iran’s response ” will be much larger ” than what Israel witnessed on Saturday.

Additional Israeli retaliation is very much a live topic of discussion. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Foreign Minister Israel Katz all telegraphed to the Iranians that any attack by Iran against Israel would result in an Israeli attack inside Iran. Netanyahu’s war cabinet has been spending the last two days deliberating about response options; at the time of writing, the group hasn’t made any decisions. But it’s safe to assume that Netanyahu will have a hard time letting bygones be bygones.

The overall debate in Israel is mixed. Some ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet, such as Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, want to send Iran into the stone age so the Iranians get the message: don’t mess with us. Most, however, haven’t been as strident. Some lawmakers in Netanyahu’s Likud Party want an Israeli response of some kind but are urging Netanyahu to take his time.

For its part, the Biden administration would rather Israel not do anything at all. President Biden spoke to Netanyahu on the phone hours after Iran’s attack and told him in no uncertain terms that while Washington always supports Israel’s security, it doesn’t endorse Israeli offensive action against Iran and would not participate if Netanyahu authorizes any. Biden isn’t alone in his assessment; German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, French President Emmanuel Macron and just about everybody in the Middle East have come to the same conclusion. As did the G-7 grouping of advanced economies: “With its actions, Iran has further stepped toward the destabilization of the region and risks provoking an uncontrollable regional escalation. This must be avoided.”

Netanyahu may not care. Throughout the six-month war against Hamas in Gaza, U.S. advice to the Israeli premier, whether it was over limiting civilian casualties or pumping humanitarian aid into the enclave, have often gone in one ear and out the other. Biden’s personal frustration with Netanyahu is palpable. It took an ultimatum of sorts earlier this month, in which the Biden administration tied future policy toward Israel to Netanyahu meeting certain benchmarks on the humanitarian front, for the president to get through. And even then, Israel’s concessions on the matter haven’t been particularly stellar; aid agencies working in Gaza continue to complain about Israeli restrictions along the Israel-Gaza border.

Let there be no mistake about it: whether Israel decides to counterattack is ultimately up to Israel. All the U.S. can do is express unequivocally, both in private and public, that an Israeli attack on Iranian soil will have a high possibility of dragging out this conflagration. Iran will be forced to respond just as Israel felt forced to respond. The relatively controlled tit-for-tat will get much more difficult to manage, and the Middle East as a whole will be worse off.

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter as much if the United States didn’t have tens of thousands of troops stationed in the region on any given day, within range of Iranian missiles. But it does. Now is the time for reason, not posturing.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. ©2024 Chicago Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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