Iranian attack
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Iran’s Attack Is a Strategic Opportunity for Israel. Will Netanyahu Squander It?

The unprecedented Iranian attack in the early hours of Sunday is an inflection point for Israel and its allies, offering the possibility of being a real game-changer in the Middle East in Israel’s favor – but only if Benjamin Netanyahu now makes the right moves

There are two possible strategic meanings to the Iranian missile and drone attack on Israel in the early hours of Sunday morning.

One is to see it as a phenomenal success for Israel’s strategy of investing, for nearly four decades, in missile defense systems that have protected Israel from 99 percent of the more than 300 munitions Iran and its proxies launched.

Iranian attack

The fearsome Iranian arsenal was blunted not just by Israeli technology but an alliance of Western powers – the United States, Britain and France – working alongside Israel and friendly Arab nations. They overcame their differences against the common enemy. A blustering Iranian regime has been humiliated and Israel’s deterrence has been reestablished.

The other interpretation is that Iran is no longer deterred from launching a direct strike on Israel. No state has directly attacked Israel for 33 years, since Saddam Hussein’s Iraq launched Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. That taboo is now broken. The Israeli assessment had been that despite the April 1 attack on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus, when a senior Revolutionary Guards general and six others were killed, Iran would not change its policy of hiding behind its proxies. That was obviously yet another mistake by Israeli intelligence.

Israel, which prides itself on its ability to defend itself, needed the United States and other countries to help shield it. Despite the successful interceptions, a handful of Iranian missiles got through, including one that hit Nevatim Air Base. And while no major damage was caused, Israel remains mired in a war in Gaza where the hostages are dying in captivity, and its deserted communities on the northern border are still being bombarded the day after by Hezbollah. Israel’s deterrence has never been so hollow.

Which of these scenarios is accurate?

The unprecedented Iranian attack is an inflection point. Israel, along with the main Western powers and its Arab neighbors, just proved that a coordinated response utilizing a network of radars, various types of interceptor missiles and fighter jets can shield a country from a combined attack of ballistic and cruise missiles, and swarms of suicide drones.

It is a milestone in the historic development of military technology, with global implications. Similar levels of defense could protect other countries such as Ukraine and Taiwan.

Iranian attack

On a regional level, the coordination achieved by the United States between Israel and its neighbors is a pivotal moment. For obvious reasons, Israeli leaders are now emphasizing the capabilities of their own defense systems, while the Americans will focus on how they worked to defend Israel. Both elements were key.

The full details of how Sunni Arab regimes helped protect Israel, without doubt saving Israeli lives from Iranian missiles and drones, may not be known for a while. But this is a historic shift. Whether you credit Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton for the peace agreement with Jordan in 1994, or Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump for the more recent Abraham Accords, the result is the same.

Iranian Attack Is a Strategic Opportunity
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz at Regional Brigade Headquarters

Benny Gantz, currently the responsible grown-up in the war cabinet, deserves credit for having pushed the Middle East Air Defense alliance, which has now proved its validity of concept. There is an Israel-Iran conflict and an Israel-Palestine conflict, but the Arab nations – or at least their leaders – are working together with Israel.

Despite the devastation and carnage in Gaza over the past six months, the Arab cooperation against the Iranian attack proves that the trend in the region is still toward an Arab-American-Israeli alliance against Iran and its proxies. It is an opportunity for Israel to build on this budding partnership and bolster its deterrence. The meager result of the Iranian attack can be a strategic blow for the regime in Tehran if the alliance continues and is enhanced.

It is now up to Israel to calibrate its inevitable response and coordinate it with the Biden administration, to avoid a regional conflagration and minimize fallout for those neighbors that are now de facto allies. Ultimately, in order to allow them to gradually cooperate more openly with Israel in the future and to withstand the criticism within their own countries for the lack of “solidarity” with the Palestinians, Israel’s strategy has to be a swift end to the war in Gaza, as part of a wider agreement to release the hostages and implement UN Resolution 1701 in the north, pushing Hezbollah away from the border.


But under Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition with its ministers’ Pavlovian demands to invade Rafah “now” (Bezalel Smotrich) and launch a “devastating” response on Iran (Itamar Ben-Gvir), there is every chance that Israel will squander this opportunity.

Even if Netanyahu manages to withstand the demands for instant, unhinged retribution, failing to follow up on the support Israel just received from its neighbors with a response that also includes diplomatic elements will be a waste of a historic chance to mount a much more effective front against Iran.

Failing to do so will mean that Iran could win this strategic moment.

Anshel Pfeffer

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