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A pivotal moment on Iran — but also on Gaza


TEL AVIV — Israel achieved a stunning, two-front success in rebuffing Iran’s unprecedented attack this weekend: Its aerial defense, especially the Arrow system targeting ballistic missiles, proved hugely effective, and an impressive array of allies joined in the fight.

The second, given the deep blow to Israel’s international standing over its prosecution of the war in Gaza, was perhaps the more surprising — and more meaningful in the long run. Not only did American and British planes join Israel in shooting down some 300 drones and missiles launched by Tehran, but the French assisted as well, and the operation received at least the tacit support of Jordan and Saudi Arabia and others in the region.

It was a startling illustration of the potential strategic alliance that President Joe Biden has been laboring in futility to convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to engage with and invest in. Now, the pressure is squarely on Netanyahu and his coalition partners to do little or nothing in response. 

By not retaliating, Israel could recover something of the moral high ground and global sympathy that existed in the days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre — sympathy that has been buried under the rubble of Gaza because of Netanyahu’s apparent indifference to the civilian death toll and broader humanitarian crisis. That repositioning could allow Israel much more maneuvering room to free its hostages and move toward the difficult Day After in Gaza while continuing its deterrence of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The stakes could hardly be higher, given the U.S. troops, bases and interests in the region; the vulnerability of Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf; the tensions stoked by the Gaza war; and Iran’s status as a nuclear threshold state, thanks largely to Netanyahu’s foolish goading of President Donald Trump to walk away from the 2015 deal that could have prevented it.

The Israeli leader has been trying to make Iran and the existential threat it presents to the Jewish state the center of attention for many years. Israel’s April 1 airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, which killed 16 people, including leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, did just that. There is more than a suspicion among security and political experts here that Netanyahu wishes to prolong the tensions with Iran in order to deflect attention from the failures in the stalemated Gaza war.

At the same time, there is also a sense that the Iranians did not intend to cause much actual damage with their overnight assault, but were mainly trying to make a point about their capacity to throw Israel into a panicky high alert in hopes of deterring future assassinations of senior military figures. 

The raid was all but telegraphed by Tehran, and intelligence agencies in Washington, Tel Aviv and even Berlin all knew what was coming. The Iranians took the extremely unusual step — even before the first projectile had reached Israel — of declaring via their embassy at the United Nations that, from their perspective, the matter was closed. And, notably, Hezbollah did not simultaneously barrage Israel with its own rocket arsenal, which would have scrambled Israel’s defenses and complicated the picture. 

It is not impossible to contemplate, in the hall of mirrors that is the Middle East, the Iranians rooting for the Israelis to shoot down their own missiles.

Or, indeed, that Netanyahu was rooting for the attack so he could take credit for Israel surviving it virtually unscathed. 

As it has been for months, the entire picture is clouded by the extraordinary level of cynicism about Netanyahu, internationally and inside Israel itself. Polls show most Israelis think he is mainly scheming and machinating to somehow stay in power. Even many longtime supporters say he is dragging out the Gaza war in order to avoid an accounting for the  inexplicable failures of Oct. 7. Right on cue, Netanyahu declares every few days that while the war continues, talk of new elections must be put off.

The only way for Netanyahu to replenish Israel’s international credit – and to lend any rational aspect to the war – is to agree to proposals from allies both in the West and in the region to reestablish the Palestinian Authority’s rule in Gaza (which ended in a Hamas coup in 2007). Netanyahu refrains from this mainly for fear that it would lead the extreme right-wing parties in his coalition to bolt, and thus end his reign.

Since Israelis, like nature, abhor a vacuum, other ideas have arisen — mainly to agree to Hamas’ conditions for release of the remaining hostages, which are a ceasefire and pullout from Gaza. This is based on an emerging consensus among both experts and Israeli citizens that Netanyahu’s two stated war aims – removing Hamas and returning the hostages – were always at odds. 

A fight to the finish could leave Hamas leaders using the hostages as human shields and lead to their deaths; it is clear that Hamas would never let go of this life-insurance policy without Israel ending the war. The government’s insistence that military pressure would move the needle contains the naively quaint implication that Hamas cares about the suffering of the Gazans. 

Therefore, one plausible scenario would have Israel ending the war with Hamas badly degraded but still in power, Gaza horrendously battered, and the hostages returned.

“I am prepared to pay any price to return the hostages, including ending the war,” retired Gen. Amos Yaron, a former defense ministry leader, said on Sunday. “Entering Rafah will not return the hostages – it will return coffins. In any case, you cannot remove Hamas without putting something else in its place.”

Netanyahu, who for years was something of an enabler of Hamas, might actually hate this option less than working with the Palestinian Authority on an alternative future for Gaza. With any luck, this strategy would also enable the resumption of normalization efforts with Saudi Arabia, especially given the cooperation in the region during the Iran attack.

But such a ceasefire would likely be short-lived. Israel should institute a zero-tolerance policy going forward, and prepare for the inevitable sting by the Hamas scorpion. At the first provocation, it would resume the fight, this time without being hamstrung by the presence of its hostage human shields.

If all this feels like a defeat, then it is one that was suffered already on Oct. 7, when Hamas was able to not only kill 1,200 people but kidnap more than 200 others. Israel must own that and investigate it rigorously. And if it retains a survival instinct, it will defenestrate the execrable leadership that led to such disaster and now faces justified distrust.

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