Sheldon Kirshner

Israel Has No Choice But To Retaliate Against Iran

Just days after Iran upended the Middle East with its  unprecedented drone and missile attack against Israel on April 13, the Israeli government is carefully pondering what do do next at this moment of peril in the region.

The war cabinet has met several times to consider its options, but diverse views have emerged and Israel has yet to make a firm decision.

Israel, however, is leaning toward a retaliatory strike, hoping that an Iranian counter-attack does not trigger a regional war.

This is certainly a fraught moment for Israel.

For the past six months, the Israeli armed forces have been enmeshed in wars with two Iranian proxies, fighting Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

And now this.

Considering that Israel is thinly stretched and under enormous pressure from the United States, its allies and United Nations Secretary General António Guterres to exercise restraint and deescalate tensions, Benjamin Netanyahu faces what is probably the most complicated and consequential problem of his long career as Israel’s prime minister.

Iran, Israel’s deadliest foe, crossed a red line when it launched upwards of 350 drones and missiles at Israel from its own territory on April 13. Until then, Iran had relied on surrogates like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in the Axis of Resistance to carry out attacks against Israel.

But after the Israeli Air Force bombed Iran’s consulate in Damascus on April 1, killing two generals and five lower-ranking officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran sought vengeance and a change in the unwritten rules that govern its protracted confrontation with Israel. No longer satisfied with waging a shadow war with Israel, whose very existence it rejects, Iran decided to cross the Rubicon in a calculated bid to outwit Israel and restore its deterrent power.

Iran’s onslaught, though psychologically intimidating, failed militarily. Israel, the United States, Britain and Jordan shot down 99 percent of the Iranian projectiles, with only a handful of the missiles penetrating Israel’s highly effective defence system, composed of the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow.

The Iranian missiles that got through struck the Nevatim air base in the Negev desert, damaging a transport airplane, a runway and a building. Falling debris from a downed missile badly injured a Bedouin girl in the general vicinity.

Iran claims that its counter-attack was limited and aimed at military targets, but this is patently untrue. Iranian drones and/or missiles flew over Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and could have caused horrendous casualties had they landed.

According to U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, Iran intended to cause “extensive damage inside Israel,” but failed due to Israeli, U.S., British and Jordanian interceptions. By all accounts, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates passed along vital intelligence data to the United States that it conveyed to Israel.

The Institute for the Study of War also thinks that Iran hoped to inflict a grievous blow on Israel: “The Iranian … attack on Israel was very likely intended to cause significant damage below the threshold that would trigger a massive Israeli response. The attack was designed to succeed, not to fail.  The strike package was modelled on those the Russians have used repeatedly against Ukraine to great effect. The attack caused more limited damage than intended likely because the Iranians underestimated the tremendous advantages Israel has in defending against such strikes compared with Ukraine. The Iranians will learn lessons from this strike and work to improve their abilities to penetrate Israeli defenses over time as the Russians have done in repeated strike series against Ukraine.”

It is abundantly clear that Iran’s attack was a major turning point in two major respects.

It was the first time that Iran had assaulted Israel from its own soil. And it was the first time in more than three decades that an enemy state in the Middle East had attacked Israel. This last occurred during the Gulf War in 1991, when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israeli cities. These bombardments caused far more material damage than Iran’s barrage, which the Iranian regime had telegraphed to regional friends and allies.

Due to its minimal effects, Israel may not be obliged to retaliate in kind. Yet in a rough neighborhood like the Middle East, where weakness can invite aggression, Israel needs to send its own message of deterrence to Iran. From a strategic perspective, Israel cannot afford to stand down as it did in 1991, when it bent to the will of the United States and refrained from launching reprisals against Iraq.

Twenty three years on, Israel is unlikely to turn the other cheek, judging by the comments of key Israeli figures.

Netanyahu has said that Israel “will do what it needs to defend itself.”

The commander of Israeli forces, General Herzi Halevi, said on April 15 that Iran’s strike was meant to harm Israel’s “strategic capabilities” and would “be met with a response.”  He provided no details, keeping the Iranians on edge.

The army’s spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said that Israel would react “at the time that we choose.”

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant struck a defiant tone. “The Iranians failed in their attack, and they will fail to deter Israel,” he said. “The skies of the Middle East are wide open for the (Israeli) air force. Every enemy that comes after us will be struck wherever they are.”

More to the point, Gallant told U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin that “Israel won’t accept an equation in which Iran responds with a direct attack every time Israel strikes targets in Syria.”

Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet and the former defence minister, said that Israel will choose when and how to respond, while working with the United States to build a global and regional alliance against Iran.

It is impossible to know whether Israel will go as far as to bomb Iranian assets in Iran, but such an operation could be a risky undertaking in light of the threats that Iran’s leadership has levelled against Israel in the last few days.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, claiming that Iran has taught Israel a lesson, has warned that “any new adventures against the interests of the Iranian nation” would draw “a heavier … response from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

President Joe Biden has informed Netanyahu that the United States will not support an Israeli counter-attack, fearing it could spiral into a regional war that would destabilize the region and undermine its interests there.

Claiming that Israel had successfully fended off Iran’s attack, Biden reportedly said, “You got a win. Take the win.” He urged Netanyahu to “think carefully and strategically about the risk of escalation.”

Israel’s former prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has criticized Biden’s comments.

“No, it’s NOT a victory,” Bennett wrote on X. “When a bully tries to hit you 350 times and only succeeds seven time, you’ve NOT won. You don’t win wars just by intercepting your enemy’s hits, nor do you deter it. Your enemy will just try harder with more and better weapons and methods next time.”

The only way to deter further Iranian aggression is by “exacting a deeply painful price,” noted Bennett, who has repeatedly argued that Israel should hit Iran rather than its proxies.

The vast majority of Israelis agree with Bennett’s assessment, and the Israeli government now is most likely considering the possibility of inflicting a damaging blow on Iran.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,
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