All-out war or de-escalation: what will Netanyahu do next?

<span>Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli officials have promised a ‘a significant, powerful response' to the attack.</span><span>Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli officials have promised a ‘a significant, powerful response' to the attack.Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images

When Saddam Hussein embarked on his failed venture to capture Kuwait in 1991, the Iraqi dictator lobbed dozens of Scud missiles at Tel Aviv in the hope of provoking an Israeli retaliation that would split the US-Arab coalition moving against him. Washington convinced Israel’s then prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, not to step into the fray, and all-out regional war was averted.

This weekend Iran became the first sovereign state in 33 years to directly attack Israel, launching hundreds of missiles and drones overnight. Benjamin Netanyahu could be said to be facing a similar dilemma to Shamir – but it is his own decisions and miscalculations since 7 October that have led Israel to this precarious juncture.

“In the past it’s been fairly accurate to say Bibi [Netanyahu] was not usually one to escalate things. In his wars with Hamas, he has preferred short, intense and limited wars he can calculate are under control,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political strategist and policy fellow at the Century Foundation, using the longtime Israeli leader’s well known moniker.

“The problem is, 7 October was a gamechanger. How he acted in the past is irrelevant now because the situation is completely different. It’s the same thing for Iran: people always said Tehran never retaliates in a serious way. Well, after this weekend that’s no longer the case.”

Israelis faced a sleepless night on Saturday when officials announced that, for the first time, Iran had launched hundreds of missiles and drones towards the Jewish state, bringing the two enemies closer to the brink of all-out war than ever before.

The attack was carefully telegraphed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and almost all of the munitions were intercepted by Israel’s air force and multilayered air defence system – albeit with the well-coordinated help of several allies. The question now is how the beleaguered Netanyahu will respond.

Israeli officials have promised a “significant, powerful response” to the attack, which Tehran said was retaliation for the bombing of an Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus on 1 April that killed two senior Revolutionary Guards commanders and seven other officers, which Iran has blamed on Israel.

It is not clear whether the Israeli security cabinet discussed the implications of hitting such a high-profile target beforehand, despite the soaring tensions between the two countries since the outbreak of conflict in Gaza and the war of attrition with Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah.

The US was quick to say it had not been informed about the strike in advance. It was nonetheless forced to overcome a widening rift with Netanyahu over Israel’s conduct in the war in Gaza to come to the aid of its most important regional ally in the face of repeated threats of revenge from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Commentators in Israel are now speculating what Israel’s response will be. “Should the response be calibrated based on the Iranians’ intentions, or based on the results of the attack?” asked the well regarded Channel 12.

If Israel’s leadership was gunning for a war with Iran, the attacks launched late on Saturday would be ample pretext, Scheindlin said.

As of Sunday afternoon, initial indications suggest that Israel, under intense US pressure not to drag the rest of the world into a regional conflict, will hold fire. Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s wartime unity government, said in a statement before the war cabinet was due to convene: “We will build a regional coalition and exact the price from Iran in the fashion and timing that is right for us.”

But as long as the war in Gaza rages, the possibility of conflagration is far from over. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners are calling for a “devastating” response to the Islamic Republic’s attack, and the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Sunday that the “war drums are beating in the war cabinet’s meeting room”.

“A source who is very well informed about the marathon talks that were held this past week said: ‘Had they been filmed and uploaded on to YouTube, there would be 4 million people in Ben Gurion airport today looking for a way to escape from here,’” the well known columnist Ronan Bergman wrote.

It is too early to predict the political ramifications of this weekend’s events for Netanyahu, who sees clinging on to power as long as possible as his best chance of beating corruption charges, which he has always denied.

While much of the public is still furious with his refusal to take responsibility for the intelligence and response failures during the 7 October Hamas attack, and calls for early elections are growing, the Israeli leader’s coalition remains stable. Polling suggests Netanyahu’s personal popularity and support for his Likud party have started to rise again over the last six weeks.

And while surveys have consistently shown Israeli public support for a ground operation in Lebanon, after Gaza, to clear the northern border region of the threat posed by Hezbollah, war with Iran was not a seriously considered possibility until this weekend.

In the immediate aftermath of 7 October, Israel rushed headfirst into what has proven to be a gruelling and violent campaign in Gaza, with no clear notion of “the day after”. Israel’s war cabinet also almost launched a pre-emptive war against Hezbollah – which Biden, again, was forced to deter Israel from pursuing.

Half a year later, almost none of Netanyahu’s objectives in Gaza have been achieved: more than 100 hostages, many already dead, remain in the strip; much of Hamas’s leadership is still alive, and the Israeli military is still fending off deadly counteroffensives in areas it has ostensibly controlled for months.

Netanyahu has for years rattled his sabre at Tehran – but he has not as yet backed up his rhetoric with direct and overt action. The people of the region can only hope that he does not now see this uncharted option as yet another political opportunity.