‘Arsonist and firefighter’: Can the US restrain Israel after Iran attack?

Washington has urged Israel to avoid escalation, but the Gaza track record raises doubts that the US will be heeded, analysts say.

US President Joe Biden meets with members of his national security team as Iran attacks Israel on Saturday, April 13 [Adam Schultz/The White House via AP]

Washington, DC – The response from US President Joe Biden’s administration to Iran’s historic missile and drone attack on Israel has been twofold: Washington has re-upped its pledge to always stand by its “ironclad” ally Israel, while also appealing to the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to take further action that could drag the region into wider war.

The days ahead will show if those two options are compatible, or if the two governments’ priorities are on a collision course, analysts told Al Jazeera.

In the short term, the April 13-14 Iranian attack is a coup for both Israel and its backers in the United States. From their perspective, it offers renewed justification for military support to Israel while weakening the world’s focus on alleged abuses committed in Gaza in seven months of war, according to Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

But defiance from Netanyahu to US calls for restraint could find the Biden administration further hamstrung by its political and ideological commitments to Israel, which could eventually drag Washington into a wider war, he added.

“The Israelis have been told by Biden to take this as a win and stop here,” Parsi told Al Jazeera. “While that is helpful, it is by no stretch of the imagination strong and clear enough given Netanyahu’s systematic defiance of Biden’s advice and warnings in private over the course of the last seven months.”

“This is a moment – given the fact we’re looking into the abyss in terms of the region – that Biden has to be much clearer and much stronger in drawing a red line for Israel and Netanyahu not to bring the entire region into a war.”

Operation ‘True Promise ‘

Biden cut short a weekend trip and returned to Washington, DC, as Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles towards Israel on Saturday in what Tehran dubbed operation “True Promise”.

The assault represented the first time Iran had ever directly attacked Israel, and Iranian officials said it was meant to establish “deterrence”. It came as a direct response to an April 1 Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, that killed eight people, including two Iranian generals, and was widely condemned for violating diplomatic norms. Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the embassies of countries are considered on par with their sovereign territory: Legally, the bombing of the Iranian diplomatic mission in Syria was equivalent to an attack on Iranian soil.

But several analysts suggested Tehran’s attacks were potentially meant as a signal to Washington. The US and Israel said that nearly all of the more than 300 launches were intercepted, with only minor damage reported. In that way, the attack allowed Tehran to conduct what many considered to be an inevitable response to Israel’s strike on its consulate, while removing some of the variables that could come from a more surprise attack or by proxy forces, and that in turn could potentially trigger a less controllable conflict, according to Khalil Jahshan, the executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC.


“I’m not conspiracy prone, but I have a feeling there has been some coordination between the parties with regard to this over the past few days,” Jahshan told Al Jazeera, noting that this reportedly came via third parties in the region.

“A lot of information has been shared between Tehran and Washington. So [the attack] was not a surprise … It’s kind of political theatre by other means.”

On Sunday, Reuters news agency, citing a Biden administration official, reported that the US had contact with Iran through Swiss intermediaries both before and after the attack. However, the official denied that Iran had given “notification” ahead of the launches, which the official maintained sought to “destroy and to cause casualties”.

‘Arsonist and firefighter’

In the wake of the attack, Iran’s mission to the UN signalled there were no further plans to retaliate against Israel, saying in a statement “the matter can be deemed concluded”.

“However, should the Israeli regime make another mistake, Iran’s response will be considerably more severe,” it said, warning the US to “stay away”.

For its part, top US and Israeli officials spent the hours after the attack on a flurry of calls, with Biden reportedly telling Netanyahu that Washington would not support a subsequent Israeli strike on Iran. Biden stressed the strength Israel had projected in defending against the attack, administration officials said, while seeking to defuse further fighting.

In that, the Biden administration’s response has embodied a “microcosm of their overall approach since the seventh of October”, according to Brian Finucane, a senior adviser for the US programme at Crisis Group.

That approach “is to play both the roles of arsonist and firefighter in Israel-Palestine and in the wider Middle East”, he said.

The Biden administration has continued to provide material and political support for Israel amid the war in Gaza, even as it has faced growing domestic pressure to condition aid amid widespread allegations of Israeli violations in the enclave. At least 33,729 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, according to Gaza authorities.

The administration has been criticised for exerting mostly rhetorical pressure on Netanyahu’s government in recent weeks, while declining to use material leverage. However, an April 1 Israeli strike in Gaza that killed seven World Central Kitchen aid workers – including citizens of the US and its allies – saw the Biden administration take its harshest stance yet against Israel.

Still, Finucane explained that US weapons have enabled Israeli strikes throughout the region “arguably in violation of US law” for years.

“Israel’s strikes in Syria, including the strike in Damascus on April 1 which precipitated this particular crisis, have been conducted with US-supplied warplanes,” he said, noting that the use may violate the Arms Export Control Act, which says US weapons should only be used in legitimate self-defence.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, pointed to opposition from the US, United Kingdom and France to a United Nations Security Council statement in early April that would have condemned the Israeli strike on Iran’s consulate, which he described as an “escalatory breach of normal diplomatic rules”.

“The US has claimed that it’s time to stop this escalation,” Landis told Al Jazeera. “But in fact, it’s been pouring fuel on the fire by taking Israel’s side so one-sidedly and breaching international norms.”

Will Netanyahu listen?

The current situation leaves the next move squarely in Israel’s hands, several analysts told Al Jazeera.

Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have not yet signalled whether they will respond and how, although some members of the government have called for a firm response.

“I think it’s very clear that Washington and Tehran ironically are closer in their objective. Both do not want escalation for their own reasons,” Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.

“Netanyahu is the wild card here. And the danger for the US is that should [Israel] not heed their calls for calm, they might find themselves dragged in and forced to come to Israel’s aid, perhaps begrudgingly,” he said.

In both the US and Israel, domestic politics will likely guide what comes next, according to Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London.

“Netanyahu urgently needs a victory narrative; he urgently needs to project some sort of strength to his own constituents,” Krieg told Al Jazeera.

“So that makes him the most prone candidate to escalate further,” he said. “He certainly has always been quite risk-prone when it comes to his political survival … So it’s not really about Israel’s security interests – it’s about his own political survival.”

The Israeli PM has been the target of regular — and large — protests within Israel, with many calling for his resignation. Several analysts have suggested that Netanyahu’s best bet to stay in power is to keep the war going.

Meanwhile, Iran’s attack has already reinvigorated efforts to provide more military aid to Israel, after weeks of mounting pressure on the Biden administration to place conditions on assistance to its Middle Eastern ally. On Sunday, US House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson said he would bring a vote on more aid to Israel in the chamber later this week.

“[The attack] has shifted the narrative. We’re discussing Israel being under an unprecedented attack from Iran today, we’re not talking about starving children in Gaza,” said Crisis Group’s Finucane. “We’re not talking about drone strikes on aid workers in Gaza, which was the subject of discussion a week ago.”

And while political pressure will continue for Biden to push for an end to the war, Netanyahu is also aware that Biden likely sees the political costs of breaking with Israel as even greater in an election year, the University of Oklahoma’s Landis added.

“Ultimately, that’s the bad news that comes out of this: That Israel has set itself up for a very long war in Gaza,” he said.

Because of long-standing US policy, the Arab Center’s Jahshan said he could not envision a scenario where Biden breaks from Netanyahu, regardless of what course of action the Israeli leader takes, and what its regional implications may be.

“Based on my personal knowledge of [Biden]  – having observed and dealt with him over decades – I think he is not capable of taking a disagreement with Israel to its ultimate conclusion,” he said.

“Maybe more verbosity and doublespeak, but a serious policy change? I do not foresee that.”

Source: Al Jazeera