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Israel can still drag the US into war with Iran

Israel can still drag the US into war with Iran

The tit-for-tat has ended for now, but Benjamin Netanyahu has many incentives to continue goading Tehran

Middle East

The Biden administration is breathing a sigh of relief that it has so far avoided a wider regional war between Israel and Iran. But that self-congratulation should be tempered with realization that it was a close call and that the incentives for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hawkish governing coalition to provoke one are still present.

The Biden administration’s rhetorical outrage at Iran’s forewarned and well-choreographed symbolic missile and drone attacks on Israeli territory conflicts was absurd, as was its crowing that Israel, with U.S. and allied help, had already “won” by knocking down almost all the sequenced projectiles. American policy has long been so “in the bag” for its Israeli ally, no matter what its behavior, that such silly kabuki has been normalized.

Despite the U.S. declaration of victory, designed to dissuade Israel from a strong escalatory response to the Iranian strike, the Israeli leader came close to ordering a much larger “retaliatory” strike than the limited one the Israelis executed, according to the New York Times.

Although Hamas started the Gaza conflict with its heinous terrorist attack on Israel, Israel’s purposefully reckless attack on Iran’s embassy compound in Syria on April 1, 2024 — which killed seven Iranian military personnel, including three top Iranian generals — threatened to widen and escalate the conflict into a direct Israel-Iran war that easily could have dragged in the United States.

Internationally, overseas embassies are regarded as being the soil of the home country; thus, Israel’s attack on the Iranian embassy in Syria was the same as an attack on Iran itself. As a result, Iran retaliated with the symbolic missile and drone attack against Israeli territory.

Netanyahu and his hawkish governing coalition have blatantly rejected a two-state solution that would go a long way toward diminishing conflict in the region and enhancing Israel’s long-term security. Even before this pugnacious government took office, Israel has long desired to push the United States into a war with its Iranian rival to ensure Israeli regional dominance by severely diminishing Iran’s military capabilities.

This hidden agenda was clearly demonstrated by the Israeli government’s virulent opposition to the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran, which would have blocked pathways for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. One would have thought that Israel would have been wildly excited about an agreement that would have severely restrained Iran’s program. Yet, Israel knew that a reduction of tensions between Iran and the United States that the agreement, if it had been fully carried out, would have put any severely debilitating U.S. military attack on Iran’s conventional military capabilities and nuclear program in the deep freeze.

Fortunately, for the hawks in Israel, when President Donald Trump became president, he unilaterally terminated the nuclear deal, again raising the possibility that the United States might do the dirty work of militarily taking on Israel’s archrival.

Given that Netanyahu has foolishly worn a partisan preference for Trump and the Republicans on his sleeve, dragging President Biden, despite appearances, into war with Iran has been difficult.

Yet now may be Netanyahu’s golden opportunity. An even wider war, which includes direct U.S. military conflict with Iran, would help an unpopular, indicted prime minister who may need to stay in power to keep himself out of jail and divert attention from his wildly disproportionate military response and potential bog in Gaza.

America’s alliances and partnerships with other countries are only of value if they advance what should be the end goal — enhancing U.S. security. One issue — in addition to the free rider problem in which the dominant power (always the United States) bears the greater cost burden — is that smaller countries like Israel can have an incentive to be more aggressive with their neighbors when under the protective umbrella of the larger power.

Although intense U.S. and allied pressure on Israel to limit its “retaliatory” strike on Iran has, for the moment, prevented a wider regional war, Netanyahu’s political survival may depend on such escalation, especially if he needs to take the Israeli public’s attention away from the likely quagmire that poorly planned Gaza aftermath will likely bring forth — similar to the continuing counterinsurgency slog after an initial “win” by the United States in Iraq.

Netanyahu has already seen his low poll numbers go up during his dust-up with Iran after his reckless attack on the Iranian embassy. So why not a massive first strike on the Iranian-supported Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border to get the escalation ball rolling? New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported that one of his “scarier discussions with an Israeli official recently was his advocacy of a first strike on Hezbollah, and a poll found that 53 percent of Israeli Jews favor such an attack on Hezbollah.”

A lesson of history learned by the American founding generation that was forgotten by U.S. policymakers in their rush to acquire a Pax Americana after World War II: permanent and entangling alliances can commit a country to needless and costly faraway wars — especially a country like the United States that has the intrinsic security advantage of being far away from the world’s centers of conflict. The great powers of Europe also forgot the downside of alliances when those pacts dragged them into a cataclysmic war that none of them wanted: World War I.

To avoid being enmeshed in a wider war in the Middle East, Biden should threaten to cut off or reduce the billions of dollars in annual U.S. military aid to Israel if it does not stop its overheated actions in Gaza and its blatant attempts to widen the war to include Iran. Instead, the United States is in the process of vastly increasing the amount of that aid, further rewarding Israel for its irresponsible behavior.

Protesters hold a banner calling on U.S President Joe Biden not to trust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration. REUTERS

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