The Strategic Value of Restraint

The Israeli war cabinet is still debating how to respond to Iran’s massive aerial attack over the last weekend. Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reportedly said after a meeting with the British and German foreign ministers that he appreciated their advice but stressed that Israel will “make our own decisions, and the State of Israel will do everything necessary to defend itself.”

While acknowledging Netanyahu’s insistence on Israeli freedom of action and self-reliance, it would be much more beneficial for him and his colleagues in the war cabinet to learn from the country’s very recent history, show restraint, take advantage of new geostrategic opportunities, and avoid repeating the mistake Israel made in Gaza but this time vis-a-vis Iran and on a bigger scale.

There is little doubt that Israel’s global stance is in shambles following the military campaign it has been waging in Gaza for the last six months following Hama’s onslaught of October 7, 2023. At first, many world leaders displayed unequivocal sympathy and support for the people as well as the government of Israel, especially as the magnitude and nature of that heinous attack were revealed.

But after the Israel Defense Forces’ ground invasion began in late October, the reported Palestinian civilian death toll quickly skyrocketed, and multiple accounts of a famine emerged. All the positive and supporting attitudes as well as the nearly universal expressions of empathy, were quickly replaced with harsh criticism and dismay. Columnist Jonathan Freedland recently argued that Israel is so isolated today that, in effect, it has become a pariah state. “Israel, whose founders longed to be a light unto the nations,” he lamented, “stands today as a leper among the nations.”

The very same leaders who were initially supportive of Israel still argue that Israel has a right to self-defense and that Hamas should be eradicated, but they have grown considerably condemnatory of the way the Israeli military executed the war and the lack of a long-term strategy that incorporated a clear vision for “the day after”. In fact, already during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel ten days after Hamas’ attack, he told Netanyahu that “Justice must be done. But I caution this – while you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it.”

Only after the tragic death of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers as a result of an Israeli drone strike, and Biden’s ultimatum to rethink US relations with Israel, did the Netanyahu government agree to open the Erez Crossing and the naval port of Ashdod to significantly increase the flow of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government’s inability to understand the importance of remaining both right and smart not only in the Gaza Strip but also in the way it engages the international community hamstrung its ability to convert notable military accomplishments into viable strategic and diplomatic achievements.

The responses of world leaders to Iran’s massive aerial attack appear to reflect a similar dynamic. French President Emmanual Macron noted that the Iranian attack was a “disproportionate response” to Israel’s killing of senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers in Damascus on April 1, 2024. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that “Iran must stop this aggression.” Belgium’s minister for foreign affairs Hadja Lahbib told the Iranian ambassador that “This attack constitutes an unprecedented escalation and a risk of conflagration for the entire region. We condemn it in the strongest possible terms.” Argentina’s President Javier Milei released an official statement saying his country “recognizes the right of nation-states to defend themselves, and emphatically supports the State of Israel in the defense of its sovereignty, especially against regimes that promote terror and seek the destruction of Western civilization.”

Nevertheless, similarly to Israel’s war in Gaza, many of the leaders who supported Israel in the aftermath of Iran’s attack were also calling for restraint and de-escalation. In their meeting with Netanyahu, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, for example, has urged Israel “to be smart as well as tough.” Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters that “Israel won in a defensive way… it is now important to secure this defensive victory diplomatically.” In the same vein, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres declared that “Now is the time to defuse and de-escalate… Now is the time for maximum restraint.”

On his part, President Biden told Netanyahu during a phone call following the Iranian attack that the US would not support an Israeli reprisal. Furthermore, Biden advised the Prime Minister to focus on the minimal damage Iran’s attack had caused, and the success of the joint effort by the Americans, British, French, Jordanians, and several other Gulf states who assisted in intercepting more than 300 cruise missiles, drones, and surface-to-surface missiles. The bottom line is, Biden said, “You got a win. Take the win.”

The lesson from the Gaza campaign that Israeli decision-makers should employ to the Iranian dilemma is that it is better to act judicially and strategically because responding recklessly without considering the long-term implications of one’s actions is harmful and counterproductive. The Israelis are correctly concerned that not responding to the aerial attack might undermine their deterrence vis-à-vis Iran and its regional proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

But Netanyahu and his war cabinet must also understand that important objectives such as maintaining Israel’s deterrence vis-à-vis its adversaries can be achieved by deploying an assortment of measures that are not necessarily of the kinetic type, and that oftentimes a delayed response is a more effective one. The multinational effort to thwart the Iranian aerial attack can constitute an invaluable opportunity to be further explored and enhanced. Thus, rather than escalating the situation by launching an attack against targets in Iran proper or across the region where Iranian forces and their proxies are deployed, the Israeli government should leverage the broad consensus against Tehran’s recent attack among many regional and global actors, and work vigorously to establish a military-diplomatic coalition that would address Iran’s destabilizing policies across the region and beyond.

Given the interconnectedness between multiple arenas where Israel and Iranian proxies are confronting one another, a more sophisticated approach to these current crises may have the potential to effectively impact the ongoing stalemate in Gaza, push Hamas to agree to a deal that would end the war, bring back the Israeli hostages, and commit a number of Arab countries to rehabilitate the physical, political, economic, and social situation in the Gaza Strip. It can also contribute to the curbing of Hezbollah’s belligerent actions along Israel’s northern border that led to the displacement of tens of thousands of Israelis who are unable to return to their homes, or the militant group’s most recent drone attack that resulted in more than a dozen Israeli soldiers and four civilians injured.

Based on the success of the anti-Iranian coalition led by the US, and the growing willingness to condemn and sanction Iran as well as hold it accountable, Israel can work with other like-minded actors to concertedly identify creative and effective ways to deal with Tehran’s destabilizing policies. Retaliation does not have to include bombing targets inside or outside Iran or the killing of an even more senior IRGC officer. The more effective and long-term strategy that serves Israel’s national interests would be to indirectly downgrade Iran’s regional influence and its ability to negatively project power and dominate large parts of the Middle East through its proxies. The benefits of such an approach will be much greater and beneficial to Israel than the immediate yet merely temporary satisfaction of taking revenge on Tehran.

The famous saying is that “revenge is a dish best served cold”. A broad coalition against Iran that is capable of legitimizing Israel’s regional role, driving a wedge between the international community and Tehran, and between Tehran and its proxies, would be the ultimate Israeli revenge. It is the smart and right thing to do.

About the Author
Dr. Ilai Z. Saltzman is a Professor of Israel Studies and the Director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a board member at Mitvim – the Israel Institute of Foreign Regional Policy.
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