Sunak and Netanyahu meet. Sunak and Netanyahu meet. Photo: Number 10 on Flickr

Israel’s attack on Iran’s embassy in Damascus, and Iran’s response, reveal Netanyahu’s mounting strategic weaknesses, but its leaders may still choose war, argues Chris Bambery

Back in March 1994, negotiations to secure peace in Northern Ireland seemed to have become bogged down. Irish Republicans blamed the intransigence of the Conservative government of John Major. The Irish Republican Army responded by carrying out three separate mortar attacks on Heathrow airport in London. On each occasion the mortars did not explode and it was believed they carried no war heads.

What the IRA was doing was sending a signal to Downing Street that they could hit Heathrow whenever they wished with all the economic damage that entailed, plus the blow to British prestige. I am reminded of this by Iran’s assault on Israel on Saturday night. The attack included 350 drones and thirty cruise missiles, none of which entered Israeli territory, and at least 110 ballistic missiles.

President Biden claimed: ‘Together with our partners, we defeated that attack.’ Rishi Sunak, urging Israel to react with restraint, said ‘take the win’. The Western media has been at great pains to dismiss the attack as a failure. It was not, and it is important to understand why that was the case.

Before the attack, Tehran not only flagged it up but warned the US and its neighbours. The Financial Times noted: ‘Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, said Tehran had also given “our friends” in the region 72 hours pre-warning that the attack would be launched. He said Tehran had passed a message to Washington on Sunday that its operation will be limited with the goal of legitimate defence and the punishment of Israel. Since then, Iran has said the matter is now closed, unless Israel retaliates and then it will strike back. Tehran is signalling its desire to avoid any escalation with both Israel and the US.’ 

Iran’s ally, Hezbollah in Lebanon, has taken a similar measured response to Israeli attacks on it. It has responded in a symmetrical way, mirroring Israeli attacks. It has left Israel to escalate its attacks and then responded in a similar, weighted way.

So, let’s return to the Iranian attack on Saturday. Israel knew the 350 drones were coming from the moment they took off. They took three and a half hours to get near to Israel. These were not cutting-edge weapons. All were intercepted by Israel’s multi-layered air defence system and by its allies.

What Iran was doing was twofold. Firstly, to overwhelm that defence system so its ballistic missiles could get through. Secondly, to chart how Israel reacted so as to discover more about that system. That information will no doubt already be in the hands of Hezbollah, who have an arsenal of 150,000 rockets hidden underground and targeted on Israel, including on Tel Aviv. They are a far mightier adversary than Hamas, as Israel discovered in 2006 when it invaded Lebanon and got a bloody nose from Hezbollah.

Several Iranian ballistic missiles did hit a major Israeli air base at Nevatim in the Negev desert, from where the airstrike on the Damascus consulate was launched. Reports also say Iranian missiles hit the Israel Defence Forces intelligence centre at Mt. Hermon in the occupied Golan Heights. If that’s true, that should worry the Israeli military and government. So, should the fact that Israel could not deal with this attack on its own. It had to rely on a coalition of states: the US above all, but also the UK, France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

US assistance

The US deployed interceptor fighter aircraft from bases in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and fed Israel with intelligence on Iranian military activities before and during the attack. The episode demonstrates how dependent Israel is on America’s security umbrella.

Jordan shot down drones over its airspace and Saudi Arabia provided intelligence but neither, along with the Gulf States, would join such any coalition behind an Israeli attack on Iran. That is simply because their own populations are enraged by Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza. To side with Israel in such an adventure would put the elites of those states under threat.

That’s particularly true of King Abdullah of Jordan. Half the country’s population are of Palestinian descent, from families forced to become refugees in 1948 and 1967. There have been huge demonstrations in Jordan demanding Abdullah tear up the peace treaty with Israel and trying to get through the fortified border to the occupied West Bank. Joining an attack on Iran would be suicidal for Abdullah.

What is Israel doing in regard to Iran? Israel has not won in Gaza, despite the horrendous death toll, because it has failed to carry out Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to ‘annihilate’ Hamas. He and the IDF know that when they finally pull out, Hamas fighters will emerge to celebrate. It’s those images which will be remembered across the region.

Israel has relied on deterrence since its birth; on the fact it’s the dominant power in the region and will destroy anyone who crosses swords with it. That myth was punctured in 2006 in Lebanon, even more so on 7 October, and since then, the war has not gone to plan. Now Israel is seen to be dependent on the US to deal with Iranian rocket attacks.

Benjamin Netanyahu has long hoped for a war with Iran, who he sees as Israel’s greatest enemy; he hopes he can drag the US into such a war. He now seems to believe he achieve his goals by taking on Hezbollah and Iran. In this he is deranged.

Since Hamas’s attack on Southern Israel on 7 October, Israel has mounted a series of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, killing at least eighteen members of the Revolutionary Guard. But matters escalated when Israel carried out an air strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, killing an Iranian military commander, Major General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, along with six other Iranian nationals, including another general.

Tehran correctly regards its consulate as part of Iran’s sovereign territory; as I wrote previously, the US State Department holds the same view and upholds its right to retaliate militarily if its diplomatic posts are attacked. However, Tehran thinks the Damascus strike crossed a red line. It arguably had a right under international law to retaliate, but not to do so would have encouraged Israel to step up these attacks on Iranian targets in Syria and it would make Iran look weak.

Israel’s weaknesses

However, Israel is weaker in many ways. By the close of 2023, nearly half a million Israelis had emigrated. Thus the government is having to conscript ultra-orthodox Jews who have always been exempt from military service. Its economy has tanked as well, shrinking by almost 20% in the last quarter of 2023 due to the Gaza war. Middle East Monitor reports:

‘Reasons for the shrinking of the Israeli economy likely vary from the boycotting of Israeli products worldwide, to the slowdown of international investment into the country, to the decrease in imports to and exports from the Occupation State due to the disruption of shipping lanes.

‘All of those reasons have reportedly led to falling demand, rising costs, and labour shortages within the country, with Israel’s war on Gaza also predicted to cost the Occupation State $48 billion.’

Israel depends on the US to fight its war in Gaza. Any war with either Hezbollah and/or Iran would need even greater military and financial aid. Writing for Chatham House, Sanam Vakil and Bilal Y. Saab point out: ‘Iran forced Israel, and the United States, to spend more than a billion dollars to counter its attack. That’s not an insignificant outcome, considering that Iran paid roughly one tenth of that to mount its attack. In a fiscally-constrained and politically-charged environment in Washington, increasing US military assistance to Israel is not guaranteed.’

At the end of March this year, General Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated in regard to supplying weaponry and munitions to Israel: ‘Although we’ve been supporting them with capability, they’ve not received everything they’ve asked for … Some of that is because they’ve asked for stuff that we either don’t have the capacity to provide or not willing to provide, not right now.’

We have seen the US and the West is unable to meet the military demands of Ukraine in regard to things like artillery shells. Washington has prioritised supplying Israel, but it does not have sufficient stocks in place if it came to a war with Iran or even Hezbollah. This is an election year and Biden’s support for Israel in the Gaza war is unpopular with Democratic voters. He needs to take that into account. However, that does not stop Netanyahu believing he can drag Washington into an even greater conflict.

On the Monday after the Iranian attack Biden stated: ‘The United States is committed to Israel’s security.’ But he also stressed in relation to Gaza: ‘We’re committed to a ceasefire that will bring the hostages home and prevent the conflict from spreading beyond what it already has.’ That has been the pattern for months. Biden says he wants more humanitarian aid into Gaza, but keeps supplying the very munitions killing Gazans by the thousands.

Netanyahu knows Biden has promised Israel unconditional support and cannot go back on that; so he simply ignores everything else. The US does not want a war with Iran. The White House national security spokesperson, Admiral John Kirby has said: ‘We don’t want to see a war with Iran. We don’t want to see a regional conflict.’

However, as long as Washington promises complete, unconditional support for Israel, that danger is a live one. A lot now hangs on how Netanyahu will respond to Saturday. Nonetheless, his hopes that Israel can restore the deterrence factor lie in dust. Some 80,000 Israeli citizens evacuated from towns, cities and Kibbutzim along the Lebanese border are refusing to return home because they fear what Hezbollah could do if Israel chooses war with them.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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