Susie Becher

Mr. Prime Minister, Take the Mulligan

Prime Minister Netanyahu calls President Biden from IDF military headquarters on April 14. (GPO)
Prime Minister Netanyahu calls President Biden from IDF military headquarters on April 14. (GPO)

It isn’t often in international relations that one gets to take a mulligan,* but that is exactly what the Iranian missile attack on Israel gave to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wartime coalition.

Within days of the barbaric Hamas attack on October 7, Netanyahu had squandered the enormous outpouring of international support for Israel by ordering unrestrained attacks that left an unthinkable number of dead and wounded civilians in Gaza and a desolate landscape of demolished buildings and ruined infrastructure. As pictures of the human ashes in the shelters of Israel’s southern communities were replaced by pictures of mangled bodies under the rubble of entire Gaza neighborhoods; displaced persons making their way south on foot to try to escape the incessant bombing; and crowds of hungry people trampling each other as they scrambled to get their hands on aid packages, it became abundantly clear that what was declared to be a war on Hamas was being waged like a war on the people of Gaza. Consequently, the world’s sympathy for the Israeli people faded as intolerance for the indiscriminate onslaught grew.

After six months of fighting and with Netanyahu’s promise of “total victory” nowhere in sight, calls for a humanitarian pause have become calls for a permanent ceasefire, some of which even fail to mention the release of the Israeli hostages as a condition. President Biden and his European counterparts are up against an Israeli prime minister who remains determined to pursue the unachievable goal of destroying Hamas no matter what the cost, even at the expense of the lives of the surviving hostages, whose number has become a mystery. They know he has no diplomatic plan for the “day after” because there is no day after in his vision of the future. His declaration that his government has no intention of ceding “security control” of Gaza is basically a declaration of intent to impose a military occupation.

Netanyahu, the man previously admired as a political wizard, now evokes loathing among the leaders of the free world and even brought Senator Chuck Schumer, a longstanding defender of Israel, to take the unprecedented step of advising the Israeli public that it would do well to unseat him. With talk of arms embargos and sanctions against Israel becoming part of the discourse in Western capitals, two Israel-related files under review at the International Court of Justice, the IDF spinning its wheels in Gaza, the hostage-release deal slipping away, and the northern border heating up, one would have hoped that the Israeli Government would be thinking about ways to halt the downward spiral. Instead, it opened a new front by attacking the Iranian Consulate in Damascus and killing two senior members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. One of them, General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, was identified as the head of Iran’s Quds Force in Lebanon.

Even the most cynical Israeli must have been taken by surprise to see that the Israeli Government has learned nothing from October 7 and is continuing to make miscalculations based on arrogance. In the case of the general’s assassination, the misguided intelligence assessment regarded the nature of Iran’s response. This was compounded by the audacity of keeping the United States in the dark until moments before the attack, leaving the administration “enraged,” according to the New York Times. Furthermore, in Bibiland, where spin trumps truth, the Iranian missile barrage that lit up the skies of the Middle East on Saturday night is being characterized as an offensive rather than a retaliatory attack in order to justify retaliation on the part of Israel.

The combined response to the Iranian attack on April 13 showed that although the Israeli Government has been biting the hands that feed it for months on end, Israel’s strategic partners came to its defense in its hour of need. And, yes, despite Netanyahu’s bravado, the need was great, because hundreds of incoming missiles posed a threat which the Israeli military could not have answered successfully on its own.

Yet Netanyahu is sticking to a policy of brazen disregard for the appeals for restraint coming from Israel’s allies even as he sees their adoption of sanctions against Iran. Equally worrisome are reports that Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot, the two members of the war cabinet who are supposed to be the responsible adults, had proposed a strike at Iran while the Iranian attack was underway.

Speculation is rife over what Israel will choose to do and when. Arab media reported that the United States gave the green light to an Israeli operation in Rafah in exchange for restraint on the Iranian front, but the White House quickly denied it. According to an ABC report, a senior US official said that Israel will wait until after Passover before it acts. There is a broad array of scenarios, but unfortunately none of them include the one course of action that could shift the entire region from military escalation to diplomatic dialogue.

The Israeli Government has been handed a golden opportunity to repair its international standing by heeding the calls to refrain from acting on its own and enabling a coalition of likeminded states to deal with Iran jointly. But it should not stop there. Israel can capitalize on the united stand against Iran to explore the creation of a coalition to confront Hamas and bring Israel’s war on Gaza to an end. This does not mean boots on the ground, just as the containment of Iran does not rest on military action. In fact, as I am writing this column, my phone is sending alerts that sirens are sounding once again in the southern city of Ashkelon after 195 days of fighting and with the total number of dead and injured in Gaza having passed the 100,000 mark. What greater proof is needed to show that there is no military solution?

A Hebrew University poll published earlier this week found that 74% of Israelis oppose a retaliatory strike on Iran if it would harm Israel’s security alliance with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and several Arab countries and that 56% believe Israel “should respond positively to political and military demands from its allies.”  As he considers his next moves, Netanyahu, who in a CNN interview a month ago claimed that his government’s policies are supported by the majority of the people, would do well to listen to the public when it comes to maintaining Israel’s relations with its friends.

In his first public comment following the Iranian attack, Netanyahu posted on X (formerly Twitter): “We intercepted, we stopped. Together we will win.” Yes, Mr. Prime Minister, if by “we” you mean Israel in concert with the Western world and the moderate Arab states. If you continue to defiantly go it alone and pursue a dangerous game of tit for tat with Iran, you may yet drag Israel’s allies down with it.

*a second chance after a poor performance, derived from golf.

About the Author
Susie Becher is Managing Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a collaborative quarterly published in Jerusalem; is Communications Director of the Policy Working Group, a team of senior academics, former diplomats, human rights defenders, and media experts who advocate for an end to the occupation and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and serves on the Steering Committee of Zulat, an activist think tank advocating for human rights and equality in Israel.
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