Gaza war: Iran’s attack on Israel has brought Washington back on side – for now

Israel’s war cabinet has been meeting to discuss its next move after fighting off a massive air attack launched by Iran and its proxies on Saturday, April 13. Speaking after the cabinet met on Sunday, April 14, Benny Gantz indicated that no immediate response is planned, but that Israel plans to “build a regional coalition and exact the price from Iran in the fashion and timing that is right for us”.

But the first conclusion that can be drawn in the aftermath of Iran’s barrage of missiles and drones aimed at Israel is that it has changed the dynamics of the conflict, both in the region and in Gaza.

By the end of March, the US president, Joe Biden, had become ever more insistent that Israel must substantially increase the flow of aid to the conflict-torn Palestinian enclave. He also wanted an end to the fighting.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had not faced this kind of international pressure since the start of the war after Israel was attacked by Hamas last October 7.

Then, on April 1, Israel launched its attack on the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus. The strike killed 16 people, including two senior Iranian military. One of them was General Mohammad Zahedi, Tehran’s link person with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel has never taken responsibility for the strike, but despite this Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed to strike back in retaliation. Biden, in turn, vowed full support for Israel.

When Iran’s missile and drone response came over the weekend, US forces contributed to Israel’s defensive shield. In the space of just two weeks Israel had moved from being drawing condemnation by the US and many western governments for its conduct of the campaign in Gaza to an ally that needs strong support.

Whatever the motive, the consequences of the Damascus attack have been to divert attention from Gaza and reinforce the relationship with Washington. What is really significant is that it has come at a fortuitous time for Netanyahu, because the Gaza war is simply not going according to plan.

Failures in Gaza

The original intention following the brutal October 7 attacks by Hamas, was to so damage the organisation that it ceased to be a security threat to the state of Israel. This objective has not been achieved – and six months on, Hamas is still active. It is also increasing its support in the occupied West Bank and has plenty of support across the wider Middle East.

As well as direct attacks on Hamas, in the early months of the war, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began to implement the Dahiya doctrine using disproportionate force with the aim of undermining support for Hamas within Gaza by the collective punishment of the whole population. It is a tactic used by the IDF as far back as the siege of west Beirut in 1982 and was further developed during the costly 2014 war against Hezbollah.

So far, more than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed and several thousand more are missing, most presumed buried under rubble. Most of those killed have been women and children and there have been over 75,000 wounded.

Much of Gaza has been wrecked. This includes universities, colleges, schools and hospitals, as well as public works such as water treatment plants.

Despite this – and repeated Israeli claims that northern and central Gaza have been cleared of Hamas operations – the movement continues to operate across the whole territory and it is likely that most of the several hundred kilometres of underground tunnels are still controlled by Hamas.

The current problem for Netanyahu and the IDF is that if Israel is forced by Biden to provide sufficient aid for the Palestinian population – and especially if it has to accept a ceasefire of several weeks – then it makes it far more difficult to implement the Dahiya doctrine.

If the war ever was winnable, then it is not now. This is where having US and western attention focused on Iran is so useful to Netanyahu – but to maintain that focus might not be easy.

The Iranian drone and missile attack appears at first sight to have been massive, but there are indications that many of them were decoys, the likely aim being to test the effectiveness of the Israeli air defence system rather than do huge damage.

The attack was complex and involved regional cooperation with local groups launching weapons from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon as well as Iran itself.

The Iranian authorities are saying they will not respond further unless Israel attacks again, but their military will be analysing the outcomes to plan for further actions should they be deemed necessary.

What comes next?

There have been some Israeli casualties but no deaths so far and much will depend on what Netanyahu does next.

There will be strong pressure on him for restraint, but he is a remarkable political survivor who knows full well that he becomes highly vulnerable if the focus returns to the war in Gaza.

Netanyahu remains unpopular in Israel, but there is strong support for the war and there remains, beyond the immediate war in Gaza, the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Just over a year ago, there was a fear that negotiations around this programme were foundering. In the event, a breakdown was avoided. Then, in May last year, news emerged from Iran of a massive new bunker being built near Natanz in the Zagros Mountains, buried so deep that it was beyond the reach of even the American GBU-57 earth-penetrating bomb which can burrow 60 metres underground before exploding.

Already there is a public discussion in Israel of the risk of Iran doing a dash for a limited nuclear capability, given that it already has a stock of partially enriched uranium, reportedly enough to develop three crude bombs.

For Netanyahu, a sustained focus on Iran’s nuclear programme would be politically useful but any substantial military action would carry formidable risks of unplanned escalation. For any other leader that might be enough to ensure caution, but perhaps not Benjamin Netanyahu.

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