Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free

For six days the world waited with bated breath for Israel’s response to Iran’s unprecedented missile and drone barrage. After it arrived on Friday, there was a collective sigh of relief. The attack, targeting an air base near the city of Isfahan, was calibrated to avoid a further escalation. The response was muted both in Iran and Israel, which neither confirmed nor denied the assault. Tehran played down the whole episode, saying there was no damage, and did not directly blame Israel. 

Cool heads appeared to prevail. Neither side wanted a direct conflict. US President Joe Biden played a crucial role, coming to Israel’s defence when Iran launched more than 300 missiles and drones at the Jewish state but warning that Washington would not be involved in any retaliation. He repeatedly urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to show restraint.

For once, Netanyahu seemed to listen to Israel’s friends, unlike in its war in Gaza. A full-blown regional conflict has, for now, been avoided. But the volatile Middle East is in a new and dangerous phase, with both Israel and Iran changing the rules of the game.

In the months since Hamas’s October 7 attack killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials, and Israel launched its thunderous offensive in Gaza, hostilities have flared across the region. Israel and US forces have been attacked by Iranian-backed militants. Israel has hit back hard against its adversaries, believing Iran and its so-called axis of resistance pose an existential threat. 

It has launched multiple strikes against Iranian forces in Syria; its deadly attack on Iran’s consular building in Damascus prompted Tehran’s missile barrage against Israel. Though clearly telegraphed, Iran’s attack was the first direct assault on Israel from its own soil — a highly risky move by a regime that has long sought to keep the hostilities in foreign theatres.

With the two foes still bent on restoring their deterrents, the danger of provocations and miscalculations will continue to hang over the region. The persistent threat will be that one misjudges the other’s response to a hostile act, sparking the next escalation.

The most dangerous front is along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon where Israeli forces and Hizbollah, Iran’s most powerful proxy, have traded intensifying fire for six months. Israel has made clear that post-October 7, it can no longer live with Hizbollah fighters camped on its border. A diplomatic solution to this front in the crisis is possible and must be pursued. 

The US and its allies must maintain pressure on all sides to show restraint, and step up diplomacy to halt the conflict. But the risks of miscalculation and escalation will persist as long as Israel continues its offensive in Gaza, which has killed 34,000 people, according to Palestinian officials. 

Israel’s allies know this. But Netanyahu insists Israel will launch an assault on Rafah, the southern Gazan city where more than 1mn people have taken sanctuary, despite warnings that this will have disastrous consequences. 

The only realistic effort to halt the war — talks to secure a ceasefire as part of a deal to free Israeli hostages held in the strip — are foundering. Neither Hamas, depleted but not defeated, nor Netanyahu are willing to make the concessions needed to secure a deal.

The Israel-Iran hostilities must not deflect from the catastrophic crisis in Gaza. The same allies that rallied around Israel when it was attacked should maintain pressure on Netanyahu to not launch an assault on Rafah, to allow more aid into the strip and to wind down Israel’s offensive. Qatar, Egypt and Turkey must step up the pressure on Hamas to release the hostages.

The tit-for-tat Israeli-Iranian strikes were a portent of where the combustible path the Middle East is on could lead. The only off-ramp is an end to the war in Gaza.

Source link