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Taking the W
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Taking the W

Israel shouldn’t retaliate against Iran—yet.

Motorists drive their vehicles past a billboard depicting Iranian ballistic missiles in Valiasr Square in central Tehran on April 15, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Jonah Goldberg often marvels that Israel treats rocket attacks by Hamas less like an act of war than like weather.

Every now and then a barrage of rockets is fired, most end up being intercepted by the Iron Dome system, and life resumes. It’s not much more extraordinary or disruptive than a thunderstorm, albeit with greater danger from the “lightning” than in other countries.

Jonah’s point is meant as a compliment. For all the accusations of warmongering leveled at Israel, it goes to great lengths to avoid war. No other nation treats regular bombardment by an enemy as something simply to be tolerated, without warranting massive reprisal. It’s a sort of goodwill gesture from the Jewish state to its skeptics around the world: We’re so eager for peace, Israel means to demonstrate, that we’ll treat terror attacks like cloudbursts.

There’s a criticism hidden inside Jonah’s compliment, though. Perhaps Israel wouldn’t suffer as many “thunderstorms” if it weren’t so willing to treat them as a fact of life. Had Hamas paid a higher price for its rocket attacks in the past, it might have thought twice about planning the pogrom of last October 7. Israel’s air defense system may be a miracle of technology, but insofar as it’s bred a degree of complacency on both sides with the status quo, it’s unclear if it’s helped or hurt the cause of peace in the long run.

Which brings us to the present moment. If Hamas rocket barrages are a thunderstorm, what Israel suffered on Saturday night was tantamount to a Category 3 hurricane.

According to the Institute for the Study for War (ISW), Iran’s air attack this weekend was bigger than anything Russia has thrown at Ukraine since November. My colleagues at The Morning Dispatch report no less than 170 drones, 120 surface-to-surface missiles, and 30 cruise missiles having been fired—of which 99 percent were shot down before impact. The lone casualty was a young girl seriously wounded by a piece of falling shrapnel.

That’s unprecedented bad “weather.” How should Israel respond?

This column may have been overtaken by events by the time it reaches your inbox. Reportedly Benjamin Netanyahu assured members of his party on Monday that there will be a response, although when and how remains to be seen.

As much as I sympathize with the impulse, I think it would be a mistake—at least if it happens anytime soon. “You got a win. Take the win,” Joe Biden reportedly told Netanyahu during a phone call on Saturday, urging him not to strike. That would be the prudent approach.

And I agree that Israel is the “winner” here. At least as much as any entity that has existed for 75 years under dire threat from a hurricane can be a winner.

There’s a strong case for retaliation that boils down to two questions. Who started this? And what did Iran intend?

“Who started this?” is the eternal dispute in Middle East politics, where arguments over causation can hop in a flash from 2024 to 1948 to 1917 to the pre-Christian era. But the current matter is straightforward, Israel’s critics would allege: Saturday night’s attack was a direct response to Israel killing two top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) generals in an airstrike in Syria earlier this month.

Israel started it and Iran reacted. If Israel responds now by launching a new attack on Iran, they’re the ones who are escalating the conflict, not the Iranians.

This is silly.

Iran’s modus operandi is to wage war through proxies, not through its military proper. Apologists for the regime will tell you that it’s been hundreds of years since the Iranian state initiated a conflict, as if the rulers there are peaceful folk content to tend their own garden if only Western imperialists would stop antagonizing them. (Rule-by-cleric has existed for less than 50 years, leaving one to wonder why pre-Khomeinist policy should be seen as instructive.) In reality, no country in the region has seeded conflict as eagerly as Iran has.

Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, various Shiite militias in Iraq, and of course Hamas in Gaza: Iran wages war on no less than five fronts, three of which (sometimes more) target Israel. Without Iranian material support, Hamas wouldn’t be able to generate “lightning” for its thunderstorms and Hezbollah wouldn’t be in a position to slowly depopulate northern Israel through missile attacks. Without Iranian logistical support, October 7 might not have happened.

Iran started it.

Israel’s Sunni “frenemies” know it, too. Consider the remarkable fact that, at a moment when Arab opinion is venomous over Gaza, not only did Jordan and Saudi Arabia help intercept Iranian air assets on Saturday en route to Israel but the Saudis are publicly taking credit for it. Sunni regimes know which of their neighbors is most likely to make trouble for them domestically and to drag them into a regional war eventually, and it’s not the “warmongers” in Tel Aviv.

The question of what Iran intended by its attack also points toward retaliation.

Because nearly everything they sent at Israel was intercepted before impact, suspicions have swirled that the Iranians pulled their punches deliberately. They didn’t want to cause a mass bloodletting, knowing that Israel might declare war in response; all they wanted to do was save face by showing Iranian citizens that the killing of the IRGC officers would be avenged. It was pageantry, replete with fake videos airing on state TV of Israel in flames.

There is evidence that Iran worried about escalation before ordering its attack. A Turkish diplomatic source told Reuters that the Iranians warned the nation in advance that something was coming, specifying that “the reaction would be a response to Israel’s attack on its embassy in Damascus and that it would not go beyond this.” A country eager to do maximum damage to a close U.S. ally doesn’t usually tip off NATO members about its plans, does it?

But just because Iran didn’t seek to do maximum damage doesn’t mean it didn’t seek to do a lot.

“The scope of the attack was also among the biggest seen in modern warfare,” the Wall Street Journal said of the episode. The Iranians may have expected that some assets would be intercepted but it’s hard to believe they thought 99 percent would; if anything, the sheer volume of drones and missiles fired suggests that they wanted to guarantee that a meaningful number would hit their targets even if Israel’s defenses proved to be robust. The timing of the launches was significant too: Per the ISW, it appears Iran intended for the drones and missiles to enter Israeli airspace at around the same time in hopes of confounding and overwhelming those defenses.

The attack failed spectacularly not for lack of effort but, in all probability, because of two developments Iran failed to anticipate. One was the international assistance Israel received in intercepting the drones and missiles, with the U.S., U.K., and France joining Jordan and the Saudis in the effort. The other was the feebleness of its own capabilities, as roughly half of Iran’s ballistic missiles either failed to launch or fell from the sky due to malfunctions, according to U.S. officials.

If an armed man fires six rounds at you and happens to miss with all six, the fact that he missed wouldn’t stop you from viewing him as a serious threat who needs to be punished urgently.

The Israelis are within their rights to retaliate. But I hope they don’t.

There’s a third question in addition to the two I posed earlier. Will Iran try this again if Israel does nothing?

If the answer is yes then Israel needs to respond. Deterrence must be established. Having long ago normalized “thunderstorms” from Gaza, Israel can’t afford to normalize “hurricanes” from Tehran.

But I don’t think the answer is yes in this case.

Start with the fact that Biden is right in believing that the Israelis “won” this exchange. Not only did they liquidate two masterminds of the IRGC, the head of Iran’s war machine, they saw a small but powerful international coalition ride to their defense to help protect the country from Iranian reprisal.

Israel hasn’t had many allies since October 7 of last year. It has some now, at a moment when its counteroffensive in Gaza is still (sort of) ongoing

Meanwhile, Iran has been humiliated. To take the momentous step of direct conflict with the Jewish state by launching a major air offensive and have it fail almost entirely is embarrassing enough. (As of this writing, not a single death has resulted.) Worse is how palpably frightened the Iranians were and are of an Israeli counterstrike. Even as the drones and missiles were en route on Saturday, the Iranian mission to the U.N. was nervously putting out statements insisting that “the matter can be deemed concluded.”

Israel won this round. Winners don’t typically retaliate.

For the coalition that helped repel Iran’s air attack, in fact, the whole point of assisting Israel was to give Tel Aviv an excuse not to hit back. If those drones and missiles had reached their targets, killing Israelis, Netanyahu and his war Cabinet would have had no choice but to act. Regional war might be inevitable. The only chance to prevent that, perhaps, was to ensure that Iran’s attack came to nothing such that Israel wouldn’t feel obliged to respond. Which explains why the Jordanians and Saudis were so keen to lend a hand.

From that standpoint, if Israel responds anyway and war breaks out, what was the point of that assistance? “Alliances are a powerful asset. They also come with a price, which is that allies’ views need to be consulted,” David Frum wrote on Monday. “Those allies, especially the United States, are saying: Pause here. That’s advice Israel may not like but would be wise to ponder.”

As for deterrence, I find it preposterous that Iran might conclude that it can continue to attack Israel with impunity unless it pays some sort of price immediately. The Iranians must grasp the gravity of what it’s done: This wasn’t Hamas firing rockets willy-nilly, it was a major military power engaged in an act of war using sophisticated air assets that could have done considerable damage. And I do think the Iranians grasp it, as their eagerness to pronounce the conflict “concluded” suggests.

They presumably also understand that if Israel opts not to react, it won’t be due to timidity or incapability. When Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel during the first Gulf War and the Israelis declined to respond, everyone understood that wasn’t a matter of Israeli “weakness.” It was a matter of calculated restraint, knowing that Saddam was hoping to turn Arab opinion to his side in his conflict with the West by involving the Jewish state.

Israel would be showing similar calculated restraint by not responding here. If the Iranians are so stupid or so feral as to confuse that with “weakness” and end up targeting them again, the case for further restraint would obviously evaporate. They would get what’s coming to them.

They might get it anyway. As I was writing this, the Israeli military’s chief of staff announced publicly that the attack “will be met with a response.” If so, I agree with Frum that that response can wait. “Israel has an open account with Iran. But that account does not need to be settled immediately,” he notes. “The repayment can wait until the right time and then be settled in the right way.”

By not retaliating, the Israelis would earn a bit of goodwill they could spend on finishing their counteroffensive against Hamas in Gaza. The sooner that mission can be accomplished, the better for everyone—there, across the region, and here in the U.S.

Which brings me to a confession: I’m not sure my interests align with Israel’s in this matter.

Those interests aren’t necessarily supposed to align, of course. Israelis prioritize Israel’s welfare while I prioritize America’s. The two don’t overlap in every particular.

They do overlap considerably, particularly in matters of war. A regional war involving Israel and Iran would raise the risk of a new world war, which is already more likely than any of us think. No one wants that—especially Israelis, as part of it might be fought on their own turf.

But our interests don’t overlap entirely. It may be that this is an opportune moment for Israel to hit Iran hard yet a very inopportune one for America. And that fact might be coloring my analysis of how the Israelis should respond.

From an Israeli perspective, if the great long-term threat in the region is Iranian nuclear weapons, this episode arguably provides the perfect justification to target its nuclear facilities. Iran has now proved that it’s willing to launch an attack on the Jewish state from its own territory; if a future Iranian missile with a nuclear payload were to make it through the local defenses, that’s the end of the state of Israel. Now is the moment to eliminate that risk.

Even absent the nuclear scenario, an Israeli attack on Iran makes some strategic sense. So long as the Iranians have farmed their dirty work out to proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel has felt obliged to engage those proxies instead of targeting the head of “the octopus” in Tehran. Now the seal has been broken; Iran is attacking directly, from its own soil. Why shouldn’t Israel seize that opportunity to attack directly?

I would understand if they did. But as an American, my top priority in 2024 is doing what I can to make sure this country doesn’t elect a corrupt proto-fascist and his enablers this fall. And if a regional war explodes in the Middle East while the war in Ukraine slogs on, I fear that’s the end of Joe Biden’s chances at reelection. “Too much chaos,” voters will say. “We need a strong man in charge to put an end to it.”

That would be a very bad outcome for America. And—maybe—a bad one for Israel too.

Possibly not. I wouldn’t fault any Israeli for believing their country would be better off if Donald Trump, warts and all, were in charge in the U.S. than with a president whose coalition includes people like this:

Speaking as someone with a very healthy contempt for what the American right has become, there’s no denying that the American left is worse on Israel policy. And it’s not just the fringe: Democrats’ quixotic interest in rapprochement with Iran means they’re destined to be more ambivalent about a conflict between Iran and Israel than Republicans are. So, for the Israeli government, the fact that retaliating against Tehran might damage Biden’s reelection chances is a nonfactor at worst and an argument in favor at best.

But they should be careful what they wish for.

An isolationist movement under the banner of “America First” won’t be a dependable ally to the Jewish state long-term. Trump’s tone on Israel has also changed somewhat lately, in keeping with his pivot to the center on hot-button issues. And he holds a personal grudge against Israel’s leader, which might color his diplomacy.

A right-wing nationalist project that hopes to reduce America’s military presence abroad isn’t going to make a special exception for Israel forever. That’s not to say that Israel would be better off with Democrats in charge, merely that Israelis’ preference for an illiberal conspiratorial strongman as president instead of a garden-variety liberal probably shouldn’t be a strong one. The hard truth is that neither party looks like a reliable ally for Israel long-term. But that’s the Middle East for you: There’s never a hopeful solution, is there?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.