Analysis: Can Netanyahu avoid triggering a regional war?

Analysis: Can Netanyahu avoid triggering a regional war?

Israel, aided by its allies, dodged a bullet Sunday.

More precisely, 60 tons of explosives on top of more than 350 Iranian missiles, some larger than a family car, failed to evade Israeli defenses.

But Israel, defying US President Joe Biden’s warning to “take victory” and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s threat of a “severe, widespread and painful” response to any retaliation, is mulling it over.

Deterrence, short for “Meanest S.O.B. in the room,” Israel believes, is the basis of his survival. Iran is stealing the bricks.

In a paradigm shift after decades of shadow proxy wars, Tehran hijacked Israel’s strategy. “We have decided to create a new equation,” said Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami. “We will take revenge on them [Israel]”.

When faced with existential threats in the past, Israel has carried out the most daring raids ever witnessed in the region. Cloaked in extreme secrecy in 1981, they bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak before it went ahead. Likewise, in 2007, they bombed Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad’s nuclear reactor before it could be built.

Both attacks cooperate intelligence with conventional military assets. It was 11 years before Israel acknowledged the Syrian attack.

The point is, Israel is not going to phone in its attack plans like Iran did over the weekend.

Apart from the core members of Israel’s war cabinet – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Netanyahu’s former biggest political rival Benny Gantz – more than a dozen others were seated at a table deep inside Kirya, Israel’s maximum security defense headquarters in Tel Aviv, thrash their next move. Notably, Mossad Chief David Barnea and Army Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi are among several security and intelligence officials who have been brought in.

Outside the chamber, Netanyahu faces enormous pressure from his hard-right governing coalition. Bezalel Smotrich demanded he “return deterrence,” and popular Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir called on the prime minister to “go crazy.”

Outside Israel, where its allies have condemned Iran’s attacks but urged restraint and some are angry about Netanyahu’s deadly treatment of Palestinians in Gaza since a brutal Hamas attack on October 7, calls for new sanctions on Tehran are growing.

War cabinet members Gantz and Gallant both seized diplomatic opportunities – Gantz said, “we will build a regional alliance to determine the price from Iran”, while Gallant, according to a government press release, “highlighted the opportunity to establish international coalitions and strategic alliances to counter the threat caused by Iran.” The defense minister has hinted widely that Iran’s nuclear facilities are in his sights, saying it is “a country that threatens to put nuclear warheads on its missiles.”

Meanwhile, Netanyahu said in a statement on his office’s X account, “The international community must continue to unite in opposing this Iranian aggression, which threatens world peace.”

Netanyahu’s next move will likely be to try to lock down the blockade, and attack before the negative Gaza headlines throw international will off the screens.

The clock is ticking. He needed two things, time to prepare a significant surprise attack, and time to consolidate international diplomacy. As the two march to different beats, his legendary political acumen faces one of its bitterest tests.

Recent evidence suggests his fingers no longer feel the regional pulse as they once did.

Earlier this year, in the wake of Israel’s targeted killing of Saleh Al-Arouri, the head of Lebanon’s Hamas, in a second-floor Beirut apartment, former fighter pilot and former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate Amos Yadlin told me Israel was acting within a “red line” to avoid increase.

“The threshold is quite flexible,” explains Yadlin. “Deterrence is a decision at the head of a leader who can give the order to pull the trigger to launch a missile to start a war.”

Yadlin knows a thing or two about Israel’s past deterrence and attacks against the country’s existential threats. He was the fighter pilot who dropped the bomb that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, and in 2007 was the intelligence chief who planned the daring, sophisticated attack to destroy Bashar al-Assad’s nuclear plant.

Last weekend, Iran’s leaders decided Netanyahu’s calculation to kill Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the commander of the IRGC who carried out their proxies threatening Israel from Syria and Lebanon, at their Damascus consulate on April 1 had crossed a red line. Netanyahu’s calculations were wrong.

“I think the Iranians will be very, very careful, even after provocation they will suffer losses, but start a war with the US or even with Israel. They are not there yet. The damage that could be inflicted on Iran is huge, very huge.”

So the most important question now is, can Netanyahu read the room correctly – with Iran threatening to attack, allies warning him not to – and avoid triggering a regional war.

And the answer to that is buried in Yadlin’s extraordinary insight. Iran, he said, will not attack Israel as long as it fears the American reaction. Netanyahu has strained relations with the Biden administration over Gaza, Israel’s bloody enemy.

Since the US abstained from a UN Security Council vote last month to call for a cease-fire in Gaza, Hamas has taken an impatient turn for hostage talks.

Netanyahu is known as a political survivor. But now he faces the biggest gamble of his career. He risked his nation’s blood on Iran’s reading of its rift with America.

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