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Trudy Rubin: Why swift Israeli reaction against Iran could lead to disaster

Trudy Rubin, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Op Eds

BRUSSELS — Viewing live video footage of Iranian drones whizzing over Jerusalem’s hills on Saturday — marked by small, flying spots of light that exploded into flares when they were hit — was like watching the passage from one Mideast era to another.

The shadow war between Jerusalem and Tehran that has gone on for decades burst into full view in front of a global television audience. In response to Israel’s air strike at an Iranian facility in Damascus, Syria, that killed seven senior Iranian generals — including the top coordinator between Iran and Hezbollah — Iran attacked Israel on its home soil for the very first time.

Over the past several decades, Iran has used Arab proxy militias in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Yemen when it wanted to do Israel harm.

True, Israeli air defenses were able to shoot down 99% of the 320 Iranian drones, as well as the cruise and ballistic missiles — with critical help from the United States, Britain, and Jordan, and intelligence input from regional Arab Sunni allies. It was an unprecedented display of military collaboration that defeated an attempt by Tehran to do substantial damage to an Israeli air base.

Yet, with Israel and Iran now confronting each other directly, the whole nature of Mideast warfare has shifted, as Iran pledges a similar attack if Israel hits back at it for this one.

Even as I write from Brussels, where I am attending the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum, which will focus on the future of Ukraine and NATO, the Israeli war cabinet is debating how to respond. Its choice could expand the Gaza conflict into a regional conflagration — and drag the United States into another Mideast war, which is the last thing the country needs.

President Joe Biden has urged Israel to “take the win” and not retaliate now, adding that the U.S. won’t participate in an Israeli counterstrike. London has said likewise. Iran says it now wants to de-escalate, and media reports claim Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pulled back from immediate retaliation.

I hope those reports are correct. A swift response aimed at targets on Iranian soil would be bad for Israel, and bad for the United States. Here are four reasons why.

It could lead to all-out war

Escalating quickly into tit-for-tat retaliation could lead to an all-out Israel-Iran war without a clear political strategy for an endgame. This is what has happened in Gaza, where Israel’s military plunged in without any clear thinking from the political leadership about what would happen after the fighting. Nor was there any realistic thinking of who would rebuild or govern Gaza after Israel bombed it to smithereens, or what would be the future for the Palestinians who live there. Down this path lies a likely Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, an endless counterinsurgency, and probably death for the hostages who remain alive.

So as tempting as a wham-bang retaliation against Iran might be, Netanyahu’s team needs to think through some basic questions. Does Israel think it can topple the Iranian regime? How? This has long been Netanyahu’s dream, but does he expect the ayatollahs to fold? (If so, that is a dream, not a strategy.) Does Bibi (as Israelis nickname Netanyahu) really think he can drag the U.S. into a regional war?

And if the goal is not to topple the regime, then what? Could Israel withstand a larger drone/missile attack from Tehran, in which Hezbollah — with 100,000 missiles — fully joined, and the Houthis did likewise? Are its air defenses sufficient? Rushing ahead without enough forethought could fulfill Hamas’ deepest dreams of embroiling Israel in a full-scale, multisided Mideast war for which it isn’t prepared.

Israel’s use of questionable intelligence

Israeli intelligence failed badly in the lead-up to the Gaza war, and badly again in the lead-up to the Iranian attack. Can it be expected to do better in predicting the outcome of an escalation with Iran? Although there were reams of open information about Hamas’ intentions to attack before Oct. 7, including reports sent repeatedly by Israeli military spotters, Israeli intel leaders ignored them because of preconceived ideas that Hamas didn’t want a war.

 

Similarly, Israel killed the seven Iranian Revolutionary Guard generals at a time of high tensions over Gaza on the assumption that Iran would not strike back directly at Israel because it had not done so in the past. This does not bode well for Israeli understanding of what might occur if they rush toward a direct war with Iran.

U.S. support is not guaranteed

Why should Netanyahu assume the United States would join in such a venture when he regularly stiffed Israel’s best friend, Biden? And can he wage such a war without U.S. help? The Israeli leader never gave Biden advance notice of the planned assassination of the generals, even though it was likely to explode regional tensions. He refused to listen to wise U.S. warnings about the need for a political strategy for a Gaza endgame, and the need to focus on the hostages (which Netanyahu failed to do for many months).

Moreover, everyone who watches the Mideast knows that Bibi has been trying to drag the U.S. into a war with Iran for years. Indeed, many Israeli critics of Netanyahu fear he might favor expanding the war to divert attention from the Gaza stalemate and his failure to rescue the hostages.

So there is good reason for Biden to insist that the U.S. won’t join in a retaliatory attack on Iranian soil. Americans remember too well what happened when George W. Bush plunged into the Iraq quagmire.

Moreover, Bibi shouldn’t be so certain that Donald Trump, should he win in 2024, would be eager to sink into another Mideast war.

There are broader strategic issues

Even as Biden has been going to the mat to help an ungrateful Bibi, the United States has more pressing strategic concerns that are being neglected while the White House tries to prevent a regional Mideast war. As Rep. Michael McCaul, the savvy GOP chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on ABC’s Face the Nation on Sunday: “What happened in Israel last night happens in Ukraine every night.”

While U.S. military supplies and air defenses flood Israel (and Speaker Mike Johnson still refuses to call a vote on the Senate supplemental bill that contains military aid for Israel and Ukraine), Russia is decimating Ukrainian cities.

If Israel does decide to carry out a swift — and hopefully limited — strike on Iranian soil, I can only dream it might target Iran’s drone factories, where those small killers are produced by the thousands for Russia to destroy Ukraine — and now to hit Israel.

At least such a strike would be narrowly focused and do some good for Ukraine as well as for Israel. But who knows where such retaliation would lead?

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©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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