A dangerous turning point in the Middle East

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Iran’s missile and drone assault on Israel marks a dangerous turning point in the hostilities triggered by Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s retaliatory offensive in Gaza. It has thrust the decades-old shadow war between the Islamic republic and the Jewish state into full view, and edged the Middle East ever closer to a full-blown regional conflict that would have catastrophic consequences for the region and beyond.

Tehran took a reckless gamble with the first direct assault on Israel from Iranian soil, a retaliation for the attack on its consular compound in Damascus, which killed seven Revolutionary Guards. Both Israel and Iran are now seeking to restore their deterrence with increasingly risky escalation. They must be persuaded to stop.

The old rules of the Middle East have been overturned since Hamas’s October 7 assault, which killed 1,200 people, with another 250 taken hostage. Iran was not involved in the Hamas attack, according to the US, but its proxies in the region have been trading fire with Israel in recent months. Tensions have been high but both Iran and Israel have wanted to avoid a direct confrontation.

Israel’s attack on the Damascus compound raised the stakes to a new level, with Iran considering it an assault on its sovereignty. Tehran’s response was massive, involving more than 300 drones and missiles. But crucially, Israel’s air defences, supported by the US, UK, France and Jordan, destroyed about 99 per cent of the projectiles.

Iran has now signalled it does not want a further escalation. And Israel’s western partners, led by the US, are urging it against responding and risking all-out war with Iran, while they plot a diplomatic response. Israel should heed these calls.

In recent weeks, amid growing devastation in Gaza, Israel had become more isolated with even US President Joe Biden, its staunchest backer, airing increasing criticism of the conduct of the Gaza war. But the lesson Israel can take is that when it is under threat, its allies rally around. Indeed, Israel’s security depends on western support and the acquiescence of Arab neighbours, who harbour similar concerns about the threats posed by Iran and Islamist extremism.

For months, Israel’s premier Benjamin Netanyahu has infuriated his allies by ignoring much of their advice, even as they warned of the dangerous consequences of his actions. This is a time for Israel to embrace the support and advice of its friends; to take stock, not rush into another, far greater, war.

The US and Arab states have been offering Israel a way out of the crisis that would enable it to address its security concerns, further isolate Iran and quell Palestinian militancy. It comes in the form of their broader plans for a sustainable resolution to the war in Gaza and the regional tumult it has ignited. It requires Israel to agree to a ceasefire in the besieged strip and secure the release of Israeli hostages. It also envisages giving Palestinians a political horizon, with concrete steps towards the establishment of a Palestinian state. In return, Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, would normalise relations with Israel. That would lay the foundations for a US-backed, Israeli-Arab security coalition of the sort that Israel has long desired.

Israel’s war cabinet has been weighing its options. The more extreme elements in Netanyahu’s far-right government would recoil at the suggestion that an Iranian attack should go unanswered and the Gaza war should end. Yet Israel’s security, and the alliances it needs, cannot be forged if it does not wind down a Gaza war that, while severely degrading Hamas, has also caused massive civilian casualties and a humanitarian catastrophe. Israel has a difficult choice to make. It should listen to its allies.

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