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Be restrained or go ‘crazy’? Israel faces tough choices after Iran attack

Benjamin Netanyahu’s initial assessment of how Israel’s aerial defences dealt with Iran’s first direct drone and missile attack on the Jewish state contained more than a hint of satisfaction.

“We intercepted. We stopped [the attack]. Together we will win,” the Israeli prime minister wrote on social media platform X on Sunday, after Israel and its allies shot down 99 per cent of the barrage launched by Iran and its proxies.

But the next challenge for Israel’s leadership is arguably even more complex: how to respond to the first direct attack on the country by a sovereign state for more than 30 years without plunging the Middle East into a full-blown conflict.

“This is a new stage. It could be referred to as the first direct Iranian-Israeli war,” said Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “Right now it’s still very partial, very limited. But [how it plays out] has the potential to change the rules of the game between Israel and Iran from now on.”

Israeli officials — who even before Iran’s unprecedented drone-and-missile attack were bent on restoring the country’s deterrence that had been eviscerated by Hamas’s October 7 attack — have made clear they will respond to the barrage. But diplomats said they were still in the dark as to what form the response would take.

Israel’s presumed strike on an Iranian consulate in Damascus this month and Iran’s retaliation on Saturday have overturned the policy of avoiding direct confrontation that guided the two countries’ shadow war for 30 years. Now both are in uncharted territory.

For Netanyahu, the politics are difficult. As so often since he took office in 2022 at the head of the most right-wing government in Israeli history, the prime minister faces competing demands from international allies such as the US, whose support underpins Israel’s security, and the far-right coalition partners who hold the keys to his political future.

The US, where officials were already frustrated at not having received advance warning of Israel’s strike in Damascus, was quick to urge restraint, with secretary of state Antony Blinken saying Washington did “not seek escalation”.

Benjamin Netanyahu convenes the Israeli War Cabinet in Tel Aviv on April 14 © Amos Ben-Gershon/GPO/dpa

Benny Gantz, the former general and opposition politician who joined Netanyahu’s cabinet after the outbreak of the war with Hamas in October, also urged patience on Sunday, saying Israel should not rush to take a unilateral approach to dealing with Iran.

“Faced with the threat of Iran — we will build a regional coalition and [exact] a price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us,” he said.

But hardliners in Netanyahu’s coalition called in unison for an aggressive response.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultranationalist national security minister, demanded a “crushing attack”. “The concepts of containment and proportionality are concepts that passed away on October 7,” he said, referring to Hamas’s attack on Israel that triggered the war in Gaza. “In order to create deterrence in the Middle East, the landlord must go crazy.”

Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s far-right finance minister, made similar demands. “If our response resonates throughout the Middle East for generations to come — we will win,” he said. “If we hesitate, God forbid, we will put ourselves and our children in existential danger.”

On the streets of Jerusalem — which shop owners said were quieter than usual as locals recovered from a disrupted night — similar debates were playing out among a population still reeling from six months of war with Hamas and traumatised by the security failures that had led to the deadliest day in the history of the state on October 7. 

In Jerusalem, shops were open, but business was quiet

Naomi, 26, who is from Jerusalem, said retaliation against Iran would risk drawing Israel into a bigger conflict that would make it harder to achieve its goals in Gaza, particularly bringing home the more than 130 hostages still being held by Hamas in the enclave.

“We don’t want things to escalate beyond what has already happened. And more than that, there are more important things than having a war with Iran,” she said. “There are 136 hostages who need to come home, and nothing else matters . . . Of course this will complicate that.”

But others said Israel had no choice but to respond forcefully. “In jail, when you are a new inmate all the other prisoners beat you up, and then you need to hit them back to send a message that you are not weak,” said Daniel, 38, who works in the restaurant trade. “Israel needs to do the same. If it doesn’t respond, the missiles will come like rain.”

Zimmt said the two main considerations for Israel in deciding how far to go in its response would be the position of the US, and the extent to which the action it took against Iran — and any Iranian response — would affect its ability to carry on its campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

Eyal Hulata, who was head of Israel’s National Security Council until last year, said the country’s calculations would also be affected by how the international community responded to Iran’s attack, arguing that if it took no action, Israel’s response would need to be tougher.

“If the international community does nothing, they shouldn’t expect Israel to stay put,” he said. “The question is what does the international community do when Iran does something like last night? And Israel needs to calculate also according to that. We weren’t alone last night. Are we alone tonight?”

Tamir Hayman, the former head of Israel’s military intelligence said the success of the Israeli air defences in preventing widespread casualties and damage had brought the country more time to respond.

“The Israeli response will come, on Iranian soil. But we should not create clarity on the issue, let’s let the other side suffer in uncertainty,” he wrote on X. “Time is in our hands, you can think, plan and act smartly — success in defence makes this possible.”

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