For Israel's allies, Iranian missile attack upends debate on Gaza

Two weeks ago, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced a chorus of calls to cut arms shipments to Israel due to the devastating ongoing war in Gaza. On Monday, Sunak paid tribute to British warplanes who had shot down several Iranian drones as part of a successful campaign to counter Iran's attack on Israel.

It was a telling example of how the conflict between Israel and Iran has upended the equation in the Middle East. Faced with a barrage of Iranian missiles, Britain, the United States, France and others rushed to Israel's aid. They have put aside their anger at Gaza to defend it from a country they see as an archenemy, even as they called for restraint in Israel's response to the Iranian onslaught.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose approval of a deadly airstrike against a meeting of Iranian generals in Damascus on April 1 prompted Iran to retaliate, has succeeded in changing the narrative, according to British and American diplomats and analysts. But it could prove a fleeting change, they said, if Netanyahu orders a counterattack damaging enough to drag the region into a wider war.

“We urge them to win at this point,” Sunak said in Parliament, borrowing a phrase President Biden used in a phone call with Netanyahu on Sunday after Iran's attack was largely repelled.

Sunak was due to have a phone call with Netanyahu on Tuesday, during a full-court press conference by European leaders to urge him not to allow the confrontation with Iran to spiral out of control. French President Emmanuel Macron, who played a supporting role in the military operation, told a French news channel: “We will do everything to avoid a conflagration, that is, an escalation.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has signaled the limits of support for an Israeli counterattack. “The right to self-defense means repelling an attack,” she said. “Retaliation is not a category of international law.”

Analysts said Western pressure on Netanyahu on Iran would be even more intense than on Gaza because a full-blown war between Israel and Iran would be far more destabilizing – geopolitically and economically – than Israel's campaign to root out Hamas militants in Gaza . . It would force Israel's allies to make a series of difficult decisions in rapid succession, requiring them to rethink their entire strategies for the region.

While the ferocity of Israel's assault on Gaza has galvanized much of world opinion against it, particularly after the Israeli attack that killed seven World Central Kitchen staff members, it has not shocked financial markets or put the turbocharge oil prices, as a war between Iran and Israel almost certainly would.

Such a war would likely involve the United States and perhaps Britain, which has played its traditional wingman role in the American-led effort to shoot down Iranian drones and missiles. This could have volatile political effects in both countries, where voters will go to the polls later this year.

“If every time Israel decides to punish Iran, it creates a massive uproar in Washington and London, these countries will put pressure on Israel,” said Vali R. Nasr, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who served in the Obama administration. “There will be a major international effort to build cordons around Israel's behavior towards Iran.”

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who now runs the US/Middle East Project, a think tank based in London and New York, said the difference in global stakes between the conflicts with Iran and Gaza was evident in how Western governments have treated Israel every issue.

“There was this unified public response in defense of Israel to Iran, with a strong private message to Israel: 'Don't you dare,'” Levy said. “In Gaza there is a lot of handshaking in public, but there is a lack of willingness to be tough in private.”

“Gaza does not directly drag the United States into a war,” he said. “So they still believe they can tiptoe through the raindrops.”

On Monday, Sunak insisted that the latest crisis would not relieve Israel of responsibility for the civilian death toll in Gaza. The prime minister reiterated his call for a humanitarian pause that would lead to a sustainable ceasefire.

“Nothing that has happened in the last 48 hours affects our position on Gaza,” Sunak said. “The whole country wants to see an end to the bloodshed and see more humanitarian support.”

But even before the Iranian assault on Israel, the British government resisted calls to halt arms shipments. Officials have refused to reveal confidential legal advice on whether Britain's arms trade with Israel breached international law, as several leading lawyers have argued.

In Washington, President Mike Johnson said Monday that he plans to push forward a long-stalled national security spending package this week to help Israel, Ukraine and other American allies.

British arms cuts are now “on the back burner” because of Iran, said Peter Ricketts, a former British diplomat and national security adviser, whose call for a halt to sales earlier this month helped give the off to the debate. It could be entirely questionable, he said, if Israel declared a ceasefire and reached an agreement to release hostages held by Hamas – which it has yet to do.

“Netanyahu must have calculated when he struck the Iranian consulate in Damascus that the Iranians would retaliate, and that this would lead the Americans and their Western allies to support Israel,” Ricketts said. “And it worked, extraordinarily well.”

“It's all a gain for Netanyahu,” Ricketts said, “if he has the wisdom to win, or at least react in a limited way.”

Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the most likely scenario is a limited Israeli response. “Netanyahu will respond – he must – but not in a way that requires the Iranians to retaliate and pocket Biden's goodwill for the war in Gaza,” he said.

“The war is now out in the open,” Indyk said of Iran and Israel. “I suspect this will make both sides more cautious and more wary of the other's intentions – more on edge than before.”

The challenge for Europe and the United States, some analysts say, is that of all the countries in the region, Israel has the greatest incentive to escalate hostilities with Iran. It has struggled to eradicate Hamas in Gaza and has become increasingly isolated diplomatically due to the war's humanitarian toll.

Even Netanyahu and Biden have disagreed, casting doubt on the support of Israel's biggest supporter. But Biden, analysts say, cannot afford a total break with Israel, especially if the latter is in an existential conflict with Iran and if that conflict takes place during an election year.

“The Israelis have tried to put Americans in a position where they have no choice,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Despite all the protests from the Biden administration, they are in a difficult situation. What will they do if the Israelis escalate?”

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