Debate in Israel rages over how to retaliate to Iran strike

War and security cabinets hold meetings to discuss course of action

Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip. AFP
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Debate is raging in Israel about how to respond to an unprecedented direct Iranian attack last week, with some ministers said to be furious that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet launched a retaliation.

Reports that a majority of ministers in Israel's government prefer strong retaliation put Mr Netanyahu on a collision course with crucial international allies, who have launched a frantic effort this week to dissuade Israel from a large-scale attack on Iran, fearing that one might lead to a regional war.

The weekend's barrage of about 350 drones and cruise and ballistic missiles on Israel was the first direct Iranian attack on the country in the history of their decades-long rivalry. It followed an Israeli strike on Iran's diplomatic premises in Damascus, which killed two Iranian generals and several other officers.

Far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said that Israel’s response to Iran’s attack should inflict a “disproportionate toll” and “rock Tehran” so that the leaders of the country “regret the moment they even thought about firing”.

Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said that Lebanese militant group Hezbollah launched a major drone attack on a community centre in northern Israel on Wednesday because it saw that the government “[did not respond] to the attack of hundreds of missiles from Iran into Israeli territory”.

“It cost us wounded fighters,” he said after strikes on a Bedouin border village in northern Israel on Wednesday injured at least 14 Israeli soldiers.

But an ally of Mr Netanyahu, Aryeh Deri, head of the coalition Shas party, appeared to break ranks with the majority of ministers when he said Israel should not hit Iran but should focus on defeating Hamas, releasing hostages and fighting Hezbollah in the north.

“Our enemies are looking for [Israel to fight on more fronts],” he said. “We do not need to be dragged to that place.”

Israel's policy of deterrence has been a focus within its political and military realms, and it is considered a crucial component of national security.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the current government has hurt this policy.

“This government, this Prime Minister, have become an existential threat to Israel. They have shattered Israeli deterrence,” he said.

US media reported that a response against Iran would be made after Passover next week and that Israel cancelled at least two responses to the Iranian attack this week. According to the reports, among the options being considered is an attack on Iranian ships or a major cyber attack.

Prepared for possibilities

President Joe Biden, who is running for re-election in November, has been trying to prevent Israel's war in Gaza, which started on October 7, from spreading across the region. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the Biden administration would not be involved in any Israeli response.

A US official denied on Thursday regional media reports that the US had approved Israel's plan to invade the southern city of Rafah in exchange for a “limited” attack on Iran.

“This is not true and not something that has been discussed,” the official told The National.

In Tehran, Iranian Army Chief Commander Maj Gen Abdolrahim Mousavi reiterated his country's warnings against any attack.

“Any aggression against Iran’s interests will be met with a strong and regret-inducing response, and if the enemies commit any act of aggression, we will respond with more deadly weapons,” he was quoted by state-run media as saying.

Ahmed Haq Talab, the commander of Iran’s Nuclear Centre Protection and Security Corps, warned his country may revise its nuclear doctrine if Israel launches a direct attack on its soil.

This week, sources close to Tehran told The National that Iran is gearing up to counter an Israeli retaliation, possibly within its borders. Iranian military and political leaders have determined a specific level of Israeli response that could be tolerable, even if on Iranian soil, without provoking severe retaliation from Tehran, the sources said.

Israel’s war and security cabinets are reportedly meeting again on Thursday after several similar meetings this week, to continue discussions on how to respond. It comes a day after European foreign ministers visited Israel to urge the government to choose a more limited response.

The cabinet is also expected to discuss the fate of Israeli hostages in Gaza. The negotiations were put on hold since the Iranian attack, with no contact of any consequence being made by mediators on one side and Hamas and Israel on the other, sources told The National this week. The negotiations have been overshadowed by Iran’s drone and missile attack, the sources added.

A possible escalation with Hezbollah on the northern border continues to dominate discussions after Iran's retaliation.

Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah, along with allied armed groups, have been engaged in a bombing campaign since the day after Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza. Hezbollah says it is carrying out the attacks in support of its Palestinian ally Hamas.

Border towns on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel frontier have largely been vacated. Tens of thousands of people remain displaced in both countries.

Iran-allied groups across the Middle East have orchestrated attacks against Israel since October, in an attempt to pressure the country away from its assault on the Gaza Strip. Israel has retaliated by conducting a series of high-level killings of officials in Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, sparking fears of a regional war.

“Israel's response to Iran might be a stronger and fiercer war with Hezbollah,” a source close to Tehran's diplomatic circles said on Thursday.

“This could be the price, but Iran and Hezbollah are prepared for all possibilities.”

Updated: April 18, 2024, 12:19 PM