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Why Israel should take its time to retaliate against Iran

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Friday, 19 April 2024

Iran's aerial attack on Israel in retaliation for the latter's attack on the Iranian diplomatic mission in Syria that killed six Iranian top military commanders, including a senior general, has changed the dynamic of the Israeli-Iranian shadow war. Israel holds the key to what happens next. Israel stands to gain greatly if it works hand-in-hand with its allies to develop a long-term strategy that will blunt Iran's regional adventurism and create a new regional alliance extending from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, which is the ultimate deterrence against Iran. The question is, will Israel demonstrate "strategic patience" and act wisely to reap the most significant advantage and avoid a major regional conflagration while exacting a heavy political and economic toll from Tehran?

Iran's unprecedented aerial attack against Israel, employing drones and cruise and ballistic missiles, has upended the nature of the decades-long shadow war between the two countries. The urge to retaliate at this juncture, however justified, will not be to Israel's advantage. As a member of the war cabinet, Benny Gantz stated, "Israel…will respond in the place, time and manner it chooses," which is precisely what Iran needs to hear and fear. This will not only keep it on its toes; it will allow Israel to take its time to carefully consider every other option from which it can reap a great benefit in the long term.

Examining the Iranian attack and its consequences reveals several essential factors that will determine the nature of future hostilities between the two countries, which bode well for Israel.


To begin with, Israel's air defense system has demonstrated how formidable it is, which de facto rendered Iran's air offensive capabilities significantly less effective. The fact that Israel and its allies, including the US, Britain, France, and Jordan, intercepted 99 percent of the Iranian ordinances has had the opposite effect on what Iran wanted to achieve. Iran's colossal failure and Israel's capacity, alongside its allies, to defend itself was a stunning success that exposed Iran's weaknesses and vulnerability. It has also disabused Iran of the notion that it can keep the US away from aiding Israel, and reaffirmed that a war against Israel is a war against the US, which will destroy the Iranian regime, a price the clergy is not willing to pay. The fact that Iran failed to inflict any casualties and destruction is a victory for Israel, which will not be lost on Iran, forcing it to think twice before it dares to attack again, knowing that Israel's retaliation will be swift and deadly, as it should be. Thus, Israel does not necessarily need to retaliate at this juncture only to even the score.

Second, since Iranian officials stated time and again that they are not looking to escalate the conflict and will not attack again unless Israel retaliates, it gives Israel the time it needs to calibrate what to do next carefully. Israel's allies, especially the US and the EU, are urging Israel not to retaliate, not only because the Iranian onslaught was neutralized but also to prevent further escalation of the conflict and inciting a multi-front war. Netanyahu, unpopular at home and abroad, needs to heed his allies' call, which would help him mitigate the tension resulting from their disagreement on how he is handling the Gaza war.

Third, other than demonstrating that Iran has the ordinances and the willingness to attack Israel from its soil, it has changed the dynamic of warfare with Israel by opening the door for an Israeli attack on its soil. Although by all military assessments, the Iranian attack might have been highly choreographed, and it was more of a warning to Israel rather than intending to inflict heavy human and material losses, Iran rendered itself highly vulnerable to retaliatory attacks on its soil, which are now fair game. Israel does not need to hurry to exploit the new paradigm, as it can do so at any time of its choosing.

Fourth, whether or not Iran's real intention was to warn Israel, the fact that Israel was not hurt removes any compelling reason for Israel to retaliate without full coordination with the US. The Biden administration made it clear that it would not join Israel in attacking Iran, which should be taken very seriously by Netanyahu and his war cabinet. Israel needs the US more than ever before, and it can project far greater ominous power against Iran when allied with the US.

Fifth, those Israeli hawks who are urging Netanyahu to undertake massive retaliation against Iran now are dreadfully mistaken. Have they considered what will be the repercussions should Israel attack Iran amid the war in Gaza? A direct attack on Iran will compel Hezbollah to enter the fray and force Israel to fight on another front against an adversary far more combat-ready, with tens of thousands of rockets capable of reaching every target of their choosing in Israel. Yes, Israel can prevail over Hezbollah, but at an impossible cost. The level-headed ministers and advisors in the Israeli government must prevail and not allow such lunatics, the likes of National Security Minister Ben-Gvir, to get Israel mired in a horrifyingly costly war.

Sixth, the Arab states in the region, who have generally maintained their relations with Israel despite the devastating humanitarian disaster in Gaza, want to avoid a regional war that could engulf them. They understand that Iran is not suicidal and wants to prevent a war with the US and/or Israel. Nevertheless, the Iranian clergy needs a perpetual enemy to survive, which creates constant regional tension subject to miscalculation, which the Arab states fear and want to avoid. Israel will be wise to work with the Arab countries as their interests are aligned more with Israel than with Shiite Iran, whose ambition is regional hegemony, which all Arab states vehemently stand against.


Finally, perhaps most importantly, before Israel contemplates any retaliatory attack against Iran, it must first bring the Gaza war to a satisfactory conclusion. Indeed, as long as the Israel-Hamas war continues, Israel's focus should be on the war and on how to bring Hamas to heel. Hamas' defeat in and of itself will be a major blow to Iran. For that reason alone, Tehran does not want Hezbollah to enter the fray against Israel in a significant way and potentially suffer massive losses and make Iran ever more vulnerable. Tehran intends to preserve Hezbollah in the forefront as the shield to activate in cases where Israel, the US, or both decide to attack Iran. Thus, as long as Israel refrains from attacking Iran at this time, Hezbollah will continue to limit its harassment of Israel in the north. This will allow Israel to end the war in Gaza and prevent Hamas from reconstituting itself as the governing authority over Gaza, which must be Israel's top priority.

Since defeating Hamas would require Israel to capture its last holdout-the city of Rafah-Israel must do so surgically, prevent the death of civilians, and secure a safe passage for hundreds of thousands of Gazans to return to their homes in central and northern Gaza while providing food, drinking water, and medicine in sufficient quantities to stave off starvation if not famine.

To awaken Iran to its bitter reality, two comprehensive and far-reaching strategies must simultaneously be pursued. First, it will be necessary to undertake a massive and continuous global initiative, led by the US and the EU, to impose new crippling sanctions against Iran with a focus on Tehran's oil revenue. Such a measure could dramatically weaken, if not topple, the regime, which is unpopular domestically, and the Iranian public will cheer its demise.

Second, the US ought to begin the process of disabusing Iran of its ambition to become the region's hegemon by pushing for Saudi-Israeli normalization and moving toward the creation of a security alliance that includes all the countries in a crescent extending from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, which will constitute the ultimate deterrence against Iran.

To be sure, Iran made a huge mistake by attacking Israel from its soil and must now pay a commensurate price. Israel should always keep its option to retaliate against Iran and reiterate that publicly. It should, however, take its time first to achieve its immediate goal in Gaza while letting Iran stew in its juices, not knowing if, when and how it will be struck.


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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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