Why an Israel-Iran war is a lifeline for Netanyahu

An isolated leader who faced widespread criticism a week ago now has the backing of the West and has deflected global attention from Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference after a mini-war cabinet meeting on October 28, 2023.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference after a mini-war cabinet meeting on October 28, 2023.

Why an Israel-Iran war is a lifeline for Netanyahu

Just days ago, much of the world’s attention was on the impending famine in Gaza and on Israel’s failure to achieve its war objectives of toppling Hamas and returning hostages more than six months into the war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was under pressure from US President Joe Biden to allow in sufficient humanitarian aid and reach a ceasefire, as well as appeals from Israeli protesters to seal a hostage deal and hold new elections.

But at night on Saturday, 13 April, all that faded instantly as Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel in much-anticipated retaliation for an Israeli strike that killed senior Iranian military officers in Damascus, Syria, on 1 April.

Israel’s strike in Damascus and Iran’s direct response have taken the two countries’ long-standing conflict—often characterised by covert strikes and the use of proxies—out of the shadows, sapping attention from Israel’s failure in Gaza, expanding Israel’s war effort to Iran, and forcing Netanyahu’s critics abroad to get behind him—at least for now.

For six months, Israel has been engaged in a war on several fronts. While it has pummeled Gaza, it has been taking fire from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Although Israeli leaders considered a preemptive attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon in the first days following the Hamas attack on 7 October 2023, it was averted at the last minute at Biden’s urging.

Biden has gone to great lengths to avoid further regional escalation, and since then, Israel has largely followed suit. It has stuck to the tacit rules of the game in its tit-for-tat attacks with Hezbollah in Lebanon and targets in Syria, and it left the United States to deal with Iraq and Yemen.

Despite being fired on daily by Hezbollah with drones, anti-tank missiles, and rockets and having 80,000 residents displaced from the northern border area, Israel made a decision early on in the war to focus on Gaza and keep Lebanon a secondary front.

Israelis evacuated from northern areas near the Lebanese border due to ongoing cross-border tensions lift placards during a rally near the northern Amiad Kibbutz, demanding to return home on December 26, 2023.

The fact that this front has not spiralled out of control or descended into all-out war is in itself no small thing, considering the high risk of miscalculation on an almost daily basis by both sides over so many months.

Crossing the line

But that cautious approach appears to have gone out the window after Israel decided to kill a senior Quds Force commander inside an Iranian consular compound in Syria.

It is true that Israel has targeted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers in Syria before, most recently when a missile strike killed Iranian official Sayyed Razi Mousavi in Damascus on Christmas Day last year.

But the fact that the April 1 strike was on the Iranian consulate—considered by Iran and others to be a violation of international treaties—was a significant escalation.

There appears to be a consensus among Israeli military experts, analysts, and some former security officials that this was a miscalculation by Israel, that it saw an operational opportunity and took it without considering all the repercussions.

That is certainly plausible. Israel has become accustomed to attacking Iranian military officers without being confronted with direct retaliation from Tehran.

Israel's strike in Damascus and Iran's direct response have sapped attention from Israel's failure in Gaza.

Upside for Israel

At the same time, the strike and Iranian retaliation have had a clear upside for Israel, reducing its growing diplomatic isolation—at least from Western capitals—and offering a lifeline to Netanyahu specifically.

The United States, Britain, France, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia all came to Israel's defence during Iran's retaliation, whether through sharing intelligence, patrolling airspace, or intercepting drones and missiles.

Israel's 99% success rate at blocking Iranian munitions, as it claims, owed to Iran crafting the attack in a way that would provide ample preparation time and virtually ensure the support of friendly governments that Netanyahu has been alienating through its actions in Gaza.

Many world leaders issued statements condemning Iran and showing support for Israel. Israel was able to rely on Western and Arab support in what members of the war cabinet are saying creates the potential for a "strategic alliance" and "regional coalition" against Iran (though it's wishful thinking when it comes to Arab states, to put it mildly).

Instead of the UN Security Council discussing a ceasefire in Gaza, it is debating condemnation of Iran.

This shift comes just days after the world watched as an Israeli strike on a World Central Kitchen convoy in Gaza killed seven aid workers, for which Israel has still given no good explanation. Prior to the attack from Iran, the United States' unconditional support for Israel had looked like it might start to crack.

Open disapproval of Netanyahu was at its highest point since the start of the war, at home and abroad. Some families of the Israeli hostages in Gaza have blamed Netanyahu for the failure to reach a deal, which has been echoed by statements made anonymously by members of the Israeli negotiating team, deeming Netanyahu an obstacle.

Just a few weeks ago, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was calling on Netanyahu to step down. Democratic senators had begun calling on Biden to condition aid to Israel. The New York Times editorial board just called for that to happen.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a press conference following the weekly Senate caucus luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, March 12, 2024.

Read more: The Schumer shock: Seismic US shift on Israel or attempt to gain voter favour?

Attention off Gaza

In sharp contrast, today, the world is waiting to see if—but more likely how—Israel will counterattack and how far Biden will go to contain such a strike. Gaza is suddenly out of sight.

Even as Gaza had the quietest night in six months during the Iranian attack, the urgent need to stop the famine, halt the bleeding in Gaza, return the hostages, and figure out a way forward may be sidelined by the risk of an even larger and deadlier regional war.

This will be a real test for Biden's commitment to preventing regional escalation since the United States has tied itself to Israel's defence in the region since 7 October and would likely be sucked into a wider escalation.

Israel cannot effectively attack Iran without US coordination and support. Indeed, the Israel-Iran exchange would ideally accelerate the push for an end to the war in Gaza, given how clear it has become that its continuation has put the region on a knife edge.

Direct conflict between Israel and Iran could bolster Netanyahu at a time when he has lost the trust of Biden, his fellow cabinet ministers, and much of the Israeli public.

The US government is not going to seriously consider conditioning aid to Israel in the middle of this debacle. Instead of isolating and alienating Netanyahu, which seemed to be the trend, Washington must now engage and deepen cooperation with him.

With more world leaders publicly backing him against Iran, Netanyahu may be able to draw out the Gaza operation—continuing to dangle the threat of a Rafah invasion and keep up the appearance of negotiations for a ceasefire when it has become evident to many that he is not interested in one.

Meanwhile, he can stall any push for elections that might replace him—all while the world's attention turns to uncharted territory in the Middle East and the danger of a wider regional war.

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