Israel evaluates its response to the Iranian attack, considering every choice a risk

Israeli leaders were discussing Tuesday how to best respond to Iran's unprecedented airstrike over the weekend, officials said, weighing a series of options calibrated to achieve different strategic outcomes: deterring a similar attack in the future, appeasing the American allies and avoid an all-out war.

Iran's attack on Israel, a huge barrage that included hundreds of ballistic missiles and explosive drones, changed the unspoken rules in the rivals' long shadow war. In that conflict, large air strikes from the territory of one country directly against the other had been avoided.

Given this change in precedent, the calculus by which Israel decides its next move has also changed, said Israeli officials who requested anonymity to discuss Iran.

“We cannot resist this kind of aggression,” Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, an Israeli army spokesman, said Tuesday. Iran, he added, will not escape “unscathed from this aggression.”

As Israel's war cabinet met to consider a military response, other countries applied diplomatic pressure to both Israel and Iran in hopes of de-escalating the conflict.

Nearly all of the missiles and drones launched in Iran's attack Sunday morning were intercepted by Israel and its allies, including the United States and Britain.

The strike, Iran said, was a response to an Israeli airstrike earlier this month, in which several armed forces commanders were killed in an attack in Syria. The attack on the Iranian embassy building in Damascus was so different from previous targeted killings of individuals in the shadow war that it provided Iran with an opportunity to recalibrate its red lines.

The attack also destroyed a building that was part of the Iranian embassy complex, normally considered off-limits to attacks. Israeli officials said the building was diplomatic in name only and used as an Iranian military and intelligence base, making it a legitimate target.

Iran, which has signaled that it views the attack as an Israeli break in norms of shadow warfare, felt compelled to react forcefully, analysts said, in order to establish a deterrent and maintain credibility with its proxies and intransigent supporters.

Israel does not want Iran to conclude that it can now attack Israeli territory in response to an Israeli attack on Iranian interests in a third country, some officials said, summing up the internal Israeli debate. But, they added, Israel also does not want and cannot afford a major conflict with Iran as it continues to fight a war in Gaza and skirmish with Iranian proxies along its borders.

Members of Israel's small but fractious war cabinet, officials said, are considering options large enough to send a clear message to Iran that such attacks will not go unanswered, but not so large as to trigger a serious escalation.

Officials described the following options, and their downsides, from which Israeli leaders are choosing a response:

  • Conduct an aggressive attack against an Iranian target, such as an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps base, in a country other than Iran such as Syria. (The disadvantage is that it lacks the symmetry necessary to respond to a direct attack on Israel with a direct attack on Iran.)

  • Hitting a mostly symbolic target inside Iran. (Such a move would likely require U.S. consultation and risk angering Americans who advised against such an attack.)

  • Conduct a cyber attack on Iran's infrastructure. (Doing so could prematurely expose Israel's cyber capabilities and would not constitute an in-kind response to a major airstrike.)

  • Accelerate small attacks inside Iran, including targeted assassinations, carried out by the Mossad. (Israel does not claim responsibility for such attacks, so they do not correspond to the public nature of the Iranian attack.)

Other Israeli options include doing nothing or taking a more diplomatic approach, including a U.N. Security Council boycott of Iran, other officials said.

At least two Cabinet members at the time of the Iranian attack argued that Israel should respond immediately, two Israeli officials said, arguing that a quick response in self-defense would give such a counterattack obvious legitimacy.

Yet, after three days of meetings, the government has yet to decide on a response. The five-member Cabinet met with security officials for two hours of consultations on Tuesday, according to an official, and was expected to meet again on Wednesday.

War cabinet discussions are shrouded in secrecy and riven by old rivalries and mistrust. Its members share stories of fierce competition and personal and political betrayals, which can sometimes color the details that leak out.

According to the account of two officials, the main supporters of immediate retaliation over the weekend were Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, two former military leaders and now centrist political allies who crossed parliamentary lines to join the government in the interest of national unity after October 11th. 7 Hamas-led attack against Israel.

But for reasons that remain unclear, no strike occurred Sunday following the Iranian attack.

American officials have tried publicly and privately to persuade Israel that it does not need to retaliate for the Iranian attack. Netanyahu, they argued, can “take the victory” gained from a successful defense against the Iranian assault, which caused minimal damage and injured only one person, a young Bedouin girl.

But American officials also said they understand that persuading Israel not to retaliate may be impossible. American officials said they understand that Israeli officials believe they must respond to a direct attack by Iran on Israel in a way the world can see. A covert strike by Israel against Iran, American officials said, would most likely not be enough to satisfy Netanyahu's coalition partners or the current Israeli government.

If that counterattack provokes another round of Iranian missiles and drones, U.S. officials said, American warplanes and warships would once again come to their ally's defense against their main adversary in the Middle East.

The United States is also supporting diplomatic efforts to pressure and punish Iran, including by imposing tougher sanctions on the country in the coming days, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said at a news conference in Washington on Tuesday.

Yellen declined to specify what form the sanctions might take, but suggested that the Biden administration is considering ways to further limit Iranian oil exports. The United States is also looking for ways to cut off Iran's access to military components it uses to build weapons such as the drones launched toward Israel over the weekend, according to a Treasury official, who declined to be named to discuss private deliberations.

“Treasury will not hesitate to work with our allies to use our sanctions authority to continue to disrupt the Iranian regime's malign and destabilizing activity,” Yellen said ahead of spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

As Israel faces pressure from its allies to avoid a broader conflict with Iran, several countries, including Russia, China and Japan, have urged Iran to avoid further escalation.

And the European Union is considering expanding economic sanctions against Iran's weapons program to punish it for last weekend's attack on Israel and try to prevent any escalation of violence in the Middle East, the European Union said on Tuesday. EU's top diplomat.

“I am not trying to exaggerate when I say that, in the Middle East, we are on the edge of a very deep precipice,” said Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU's foreign policy chief, after a hastily called meeting of European diplomats to discuss the crisis.

Reporting contribution was provided by Eric Schmitt, Alan Rappeport, Cassandra Vinograd, Aaron Boxerman Christopher F. Schuetze AND Lara Jakes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *