THE ECONOMIST: Joe Biden urges restraint but will Israel retaliate against Iran?

The Economist
6 Min Read
An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel.
An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel. Credit: Amir Cohen/REUTERS

“TAKE THE WIN”, President Joe Biden is reported to have urged Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, in the immediate aftermath of Iran’s huge drone and missile attack, according to Axios, an American news outlet. Some 99 per cent of the 300 or more Iranian weapons that were launched at Israel were successfully intercepted, according to Israeli officials. Those that landed caused only minor damage at the Nevatim air base in the south of the country, which remains fully operational. The main casualty was a seven-year-old bedouin girl, seemingly wounded by falling debris. Israel had “demonstrated a remarkable capacity to defend against and defeat even unprecedented attacks,” Mr Biden said.

Behind his compliments lies America’s desire to avoid an Israeli retaliation that could lead to a terrifying regional escalation and drag Uncle Sam deeper into the Middle East. Yet after a state-on-state confrontation between the two main military powers in the region, things may not be that simple. Israel worries its deterrent power has been dealt a blow, and may feel forced to react, ideally without estranging the group of Arab and Western countries that helped in its defence. On April 14th its war cabinet was wrestling with this dilemma. And like it or not the attack redraws the rules of deterrence in the region and shows how America will have a vital role in any regional effort to contain Iran.

After six exhausting months of war in Gaza, the immediate desire of most parties is to avoid an all-out regional war. America told Israel that it would not join an attack on Iran by Israel. Investors fear further fighting could result in a huge spike in oil prices. And even Iran has hinted that it is willing to call it quits. A tweet from its mission to the un said “the matter can be deemed concluded”. However, it also warned of a “considerably more severe” response if Israel takes action, and that “the U.S. MUST STAY AWAY!”.

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There is a precedent for Israeli restraint in the face of a direct missile attack. In 1991 Iraq fired dozens of Scud missiles at the Jewish state and Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm, the American-led offensive to evict Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait. Unusually, Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister, did not retaliate, bowing to American pressure. Saddam Hussein’s inaccurate Scud strikes were a provocation intended to draw Israel into the war and undermine Arab support for the American coalition. He fired about 40 missiles with conventional warheads, causing limited damage in Israel, where most of the dozen-odd fatalities died from heart attacks and incorrect use of gas masks.

It is an episode that will be familiar to Mr Netanyahu, who was a deputy foreign minister in Mr Shamir’s Likud-led government, becoming famous for giving a television interview wearing a gas mask in 1991. Yet the comparison only goes so far. Unlike Iraq, Iran is not at war with an allied army. Iran’s direct drone and missile strikes on Israel are the culmination of a decades-long semi-covert war that has turned dangerously overt. Iran supports not only Hamas, but a network of Shia and other militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen known as the “axis of resistance”. Israel’s air defences have improved. Investigations after 1991 concluded that the interception rate of an earlier version of the American Patriot batteries sent to Israel may have been lower than 10 per cent. On the other hand the missile threat is vastly larger: Iran and its allies now possess hundreds of thousands of missiles and rockets of various kinds. The idea that they can be launched at Israel without a response may prove to be unacceptable to Israel.

Mr Netanyahu’s strategy is coloured by his desperate effort to stay in power in the face of widespread unpopularity. His far-right coalition partners have pushed for a prolonged war to destroy Hamas in Gaza, and are now demanding that he take action against Iran. In Lebanon and elsewhere, Israel has often hit back at the precise location that was the original source of fire and against senior commanders. In Iran potential targets would probably be different: Iran’s uranium-enrichment and other nuclear facilities which have long been in their sights; Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases; or perhaps facilities to make drones and missiles.

Yet having isolated itself over Gaza, the attacks have illustrated how Israel’s broad security depends on other countries that are a lot less keen on escalation. Many missiles and drones were shot down by American, British and French forces before they reached Israel. Jordan helped too, destroying Iranian weapons in their own air space, and other Arab states may have been involved indirectly. Israel’s own layered air defences, developed with extensive American help, did the rest. They include the Arrow missile that intercepts ballistic missiles in space; David’s Sling and Patriot which seek to hit them on re-entry; and Iron Dome designed for smaller artillery, rockets and drones. When it comes to attacking Iran, Israel has the required jets and refuelling tankers—not to mention drones, missiles and submarines. But the more help it gets from the United States, the more powerful a blow it can deliver. For instance Israeli aircraft would ideally be supported by American search-and-rescue capabilities to help any pilots that get shot down.

Mr Netanyahu must gauge how much more strain he can place on relations with America, Israel’s vital protector. He knows that Mr Shamir lost the election in 1992 in part because ties with America soured over settlement building. Iran’s strikes have for now healed the rift between Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu, who had been at odds over Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza. But a major retaliation would jeopardise that. By bringing Israel into Central Command’s area of responsibility, America has been working to integrate the region’s air defences. Still, Arab states have no desire to be caught in a war between Iran, which they fear, and Israel, which they cannot openly support. The British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has also discouraged retaliation: “No one wants to see more bloodshed,” he said.

All this indicates Israel is under huge pressure from Mr Biden and others to exhibit restraint. Before the country’s war cabinet met Benny Gantz, member of it and a rival of Mr Netanyahu’s, suggested Israel could bide its time. “We will build a regional coalition and exact the price from Iran in the fashion and timing that is right for us.” Yet even if Israel does not strike back, America’s longstanding Iranian problem is back with a vengeance. Ahead of the presidential election in November. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, blamed the attack on Mr Biden’s “weakness” abroad. Despite their demands for tough action, few Republicans relish the prospect of being sucked into war against Iran. Mr Biden may nonetheless be pushed to return to something akin to Mr Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, including an ever tougher embargo on it. That may be even more difficult than in the past with China and Russia unwilling to enforce sanctions.

Nor does Mr Biden want to undermine the already daunting prospect of trying to secure a short-term ceasefire in Gaza, the exchange of hostages and prisoners and, ideally, the start of a political process that would marry a Saudi normalisation deal with Israel with progress on Palestinian statehood. In 1991 America was at the zenith of its power after the end of the cold war. By contrast Mr Biden has attempted to extricate America from the troubles of the Middle East, and found it impossible. Still an old pattern, apparent in 1991, is re-emerging: when Israel fights with stateless Palestinians Israel’s friends are divided; when it is attacked by radical states such as Iraq and Iran, they rally behind it. Mr Biden has mustered an undeclared international coalition to defend Israeli skies. He has called G7 leaders to discuss a response to Iran. The UN Security Council is set to take up the matter, too. Mr Biden knows the other lesson from 1991: the more outside powers are seen to confront Israel’s foes, the likelier that Israel itself will act with restraint.

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