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Israeli public split on how to respond to Iran strike

Throughout the six months that Israel has been fighting in Gaza, the public has overwhelmingly supported the war effort, with the vast majority of Israelis backing the goal to destroy Hamas and free the hostages still held in the enclave.

But there is no such consensus on how to respond to the threat from Iran, whose strike on Israel in the early hours of Sunday has revived fears that the hostilities that have engulfed the Middle East since Hamas’s October 7 attack could escalate into a regional conflict.

A poll carried out by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem this week found 52 per cent of Israelis thought the country should not respond to the drone-and-missile barrage — the first time the Islamic republic has targeted the Jewish state directly from its own soil — but instead close the current round of hostilities. The rest thought Israel should retaliate, even at the risk of extending the current round.

“Everyone is on board with the [Gaza war] goals. But we see a very different path here” with Iran, said Nimrod Zeldin, from Agam Labs at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which conducted the study.

“Iran is more complicated.”

The Islamic regime launched its barrage in retaliation for the suspected Israeli strike this month at its consulate in Syria, which killed several senior members of the elite Revolutionary Guard.

The split in the Israeli public has been mirrored by the tortuous debate within the country’s five-person war cabinet led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Some analysts have suggested the window for an imminent response may be narrowing, with the Jewish holiday of Passover set to start on Monday, and Israelis travelling to be with their families across the country.

According to one government official, the war cabinet, which includes defence minister Yoav Gallant and former opposition politician and military chief Benny Gantz, has taken a decision “in principle” to retaliate against Iran.

But the timing and scope of such an operation remain unknown. The calculus is also complicated by growing international pressure, including from allies including the US and UK, for the Jewish state to show restraint.

UK foreign secretary Lord David Cameron said on Wednesday after meetings in Jerusalem that the “situation is very concerning”.

“It’s clear the Israelis are making a decision to act,” he told reporters, in comments that indicated the Netanyahu government was moving towards retaliation. “We hope they do so in a way that does as little to escalate this as possible.”

The lack of a clear signal from the war cabinet, which in recent days has met several times, has left the country in limbo, with daily life returning to an uneasy semblance of wartime normalcy.

Restrictions on large gatherings, which were imposed ahead of Iran’s attack, have been lifted. Tens of thousands of people attended an open-air concert in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, while the annual “Night Run” marathon was set to proceed through the city’s streets on Wednesday night.

But the military has warned restrictions may be reimposed at short notice if — or more likely when — Israel decides the time has come to respond.

Israeli security hawks say that, given the scale of Tehran’s attack, and the fact it targeted the Jewish state directly, the country had no choice but to respond by hitting Iran directly. Other options such as targeting only its regional proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, they argued, would not suffice.

“Israel has waited for a very long time to deal with the nuclear sites of Iran, and I think this is a unique window of opportunity to hit them hard,” said Amir Avivi, a former senior commander in Israel’s military.

“Obviously if you do so, you have to deal with Hizbollah . . . because it will most probably create a response,” he added, referring to the Lebanese militant group that is Iran’s most powerful proxy force.

“So it’s very hard to do something that’s meaningful without really having consequences . . . But it might be worthwhile if we really manage to inflict serious damage.”

Those opposed to a strike argue that even though they saw the Iranian attack as a clear provocation and declaration of war, Israel had to take the wider view and show strategic patience.

“The question is not whether to tolerate or retaliate but . . . whether it’s smart to do it now or at a future point,” said Ehud Olmert, who served as Israeli prime minister from 2006 to 2009.

“This government has to have enough sense not to be dragged into a regional conflict,” he added, arguing that both the current leadership and the public mood should not let “ego games” dictate policy.

Olmert, who during his tenure launched military operations in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, also highlighted the extreme difficulty for Israel in formulating a response that would be limited enough to not provoke a full-blown war while large enough to meaningfully hurt Iran.

“If it’s too big, and it draws a major Iranian reaction, then why do it? And if it’s too small then Israel will be seen as weak. So what do we gain?”

Many others, including Olmert, worry an escalation between Israel and Iran could divert attention away from the goals of the war with Hamas, the more important of which is bringing home the more than 100 hostages still held in Gaza.

“Israel has the right to defend itself. The Iranian attack was extremely scary and we can’t take it lightly. And the world shouldn’t take it lightly,” said Maya Roman, whose cousin Yarden Roman-Gat was released in a hostage deal in November, but another relative, Carmel Gat, is still being held by Hamas in Gaza.

“[But] we have to keep in mind . . . the hostages in Gaza whose time is running out. And it’s very crucial to not forget that they have to be our first priority at this moment.”

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