Back on the “good books”

Was Israel's strike on Iran's embassy in Damascus a strategic invitation for retaliation?

Following through on its promise of retaliation for a deadly strike on its embassy in Damascus two weeks earlier, on the night of 13th April Iran launched a massive attack on Israel with over 300 weapons, which included military drones as well as ballistic and cruise missiles. With the help of the United States and the UK, the first direct assault against Israel from Iranian soil was widely deemed a failure. 

A month ago, US President Joe Biden had become ever more insistent that Israel must substantially increase the flow of aid to the conflict-torn Palestinian enclave. He wanted an end to the fighting and described Netanyahu’s handling of the war with Hamas as a “mistake”. 

Biden also described as “outrageous” the recent strike in Gaza on the international charity World Central Kitchen that killed seven workers.

Benjamin Netanyahu had not faced this kind of international pressure since the start of the war after Israel was attacked by Hamas last October. 

For his tactics in Gaza, amid accusations that Israel was committing widespread violations of international humanitarian law, Netanyahu was losing face with the US and other allies. Therefore, something urgently needed to be done to get back on their good books.

Weeks before Iran’s retaliatory attack, the US had been unsure whether it could find enough support in the House of Representatives to approve aid, which included the transfer of billions of dollars in weapons, including thousands of bombs, to Israel. Biden’s administration had been facing criticism over its policy of arming Israel, which critics say violates US laws prohibiting military aid and weapon sales to countries engaged in rights abuses.

Several progressive lawmakers even urged Biden to end his unconditional support for Israel. Still, US officials, including the President himself, rejected calls to place conditions on its military aid to Israel. But in the end, Biden’s criticism of Netanyahu is described as just delivering lip service. 

No wonder, then, that in a series of social media posts, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley slammed the war on Gaza. He said: “We must also recognise that America is complicit in this tragedy by resupplying Israel with bombs and failing to use America’s leverage to increase aid delivered into Gaza.” 

At some point, this could lead to the US withholding its decision to keep arming Israel. So, Netanyahu must have felt something drastic needed to be done to regain Biden’s confidence and avoid that decision. But what? 

Many kept asking why, after years of undeclared airstrikes in Syria – including against people closely associated with Iran – and six months of cross-border exchanges with Hezbollah in Lebanon did Israel attack the Iran embassy now.

Some international observers believe that the bombing of Iran’s embassy in Syria, which killed seven of Iran’s military advisers, was a strategic invitation for retaliation by Iran. If, as expected, Iran was to respond, in the eyes of its friends, Israel wanted to appear to be the victim. It has succeeded.

If that was the plan, Iran’s attack on Israel in retaliation for the bombing of its embassy in Syria, which mainly thanks to Israel’s own highly sophisticated defensive system and the help of its allies, particularly the US and the UK, was widely deemed a failure, it had the effect that Israel must have wished for.

Nearly 50 countries – among them many that had never expressed any concerns about Israel’s war on Gaza, immediately condemned Iran’s missile and drone attacks on Israel. At least, this time, while not forcefully excluding yet another response from Israel, they have called on parties in the region to work to prevent the situation from escalating further in the Middle East.

Many, particularly those providing Israel with armaments, are accused of being hypocritical and having double standards. Israel’s “friends” now seem to be ready to accept that Israel has the right to retaliate as it marks a significant escalation in its war with its regional adversaries.

Following are some of the reactions to the Iran attack on Israel, which it called Operation True Promise:

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the Iranian strikes “risk inflaming tensions and destabilising the region”. He added that Teheran has “demonstrated that it is intent on sowing chaos in its backyard.” Sunak admitted that the UK had participated in Israel’s defence.

On the morrow of the Iran attack, G7 leaders, including Biden and Sunak, held a video conference “to coordinate a united response to Tehran’s assault”. In a statement after the call, the leaders “unequivocally condemned in the strongest terms Iran’s direct and unprecedented attack” against Israel. “With its actions, Iran has further stepped toward the destabilisation of the region and risks provoking an uncontrollable regional escalation,” the G7 leaders said.

European Council President Charles Michel said EU leaders “strongly condemn” the attack by Iran on Israel. “Everything must be done to prevent further regional escalation,” he said in a post..

On her part, in a statement on X, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen denounced “Iran’s blatant and unjustifiable attack on Israel” and called on Iran and its proxies “to immediately cease these attacks”.

Inside Israel itself, following Iran’s attack, a large section of the people again called for the removal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, primarily over the lack of progress in securing the release of hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza. Similar protests had been held against the government in several Israeli cities over the Easter period as they see Netanyahu as an obstacle to a deal that sees the hostages released. 

The Israeli Prime Minister has consistently refused to negotiate with Hamas, saying that it is total victory over Hamas, not negotiations, that will win the hostages’ release. A relative of one of the hostages even described Netanyahu’s handling of the hostage situation as “incomprehensible and criminal”.

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