Iran Tests the U.S.-Israel Alliance

By | Apr 15, 2024

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1. So That’s What Friendship Looks Like

“Look at last night, what an extraordinary success that was,” John Kirby, President Biden’s national security communications adviser, told me Sunday morning in an interview on the White House North Lawn. As a retired Navy admiral, Kirby can clearly appreciate the military feat of Saturday night—Israel’s almost complete interception of one of the world’s largest-ever missile and drone attacks, from Iran.

“I don’t know how there could be a more practical show of support for Israel than what you saw last night,” Kirby continued. “Yeah, 300 missiles and drones were fired at Israel, how many got through? How much damage was done? How many casualties were suffered?” he asked rhetorically, responding that the virtual lack of any of these was “because of the international support for Israel and particularly American support for Israel, to make sure Israel has what it needs to defend itself.” Iran’s attack was retaliation for Israel’s assassinations of two Iranian generals in its bombing of a diplomatic compound in Damascus, and five other officers. Turkish, Jordanian and Iraqi officials have claimed that Iran gave a 72-hour warning before the attack in order to contain the conflict, but this has been contested by the United States.

The April 13 attack will go down as one of the brightest moments of the American-Israeli alliance. Ten days of joint planning led to an orchestrated defensive operation carried out by fighter jets, warships and advanced missile defense systems. The U.S. forces joined Israel in providing a practically impenetrable shield that successfully blocked the Iranian barrage of drones, guided missiles and ballistic missiles. 

As far as the United States is concerned, the Saturday attack—which sent millions of Israelis into a state of panic and arguably changed the power equation in the Middle East for years to come—should be viewed based on the facts on the ground. And these facts indicate that Israel came out victorious. “Take the win,” administration officials said after the attack, describing their suggestion to their Israeli counterparts. And that, in a nutshell, is the message coming out of the Biden administration in the aftermath of Iran’s retaliatory attack on Israel.

It was a visible demonstration of how deep and robust the relationship is, and it sent a clear message that even at times of tension when Jerusalem and Washington are at odds, there is no substitute for this relationship. 

And now, it’s time to cash in on this victorious moment.

2. The Day After

Standing on the White House lawn Sunday, Kirby kept the spirit of success alive, as did other administration officials and President Biden, who had just completed a video conference call with leaders of the G-7 countries to discuss their next moves regarding Iran.

Although America wants to get back to the regular business of defusing Middle East conflicts, Israel has quite a different vision: Israel’s military leadership is not likely to “take the win” and move on, nor will it be willing to declare a draw in its recent round of fighting against Iran. The prevailing notion among Israelis, including decision makers, is that Saturday’s attack cannot go unanswered, and that this unprecedented assault on Israel requires military reprisal. Otherwise, the thinking goes, Israel risks emboldening Iran and losing its power of deterrence. 

And this is the fork in the road in which this celebratory moment of unity between Israel and the United States could turn into a major strategic rift: If Israel insists on an immediate and powerful military response, it will likely lead to an Iranian retaliation, which will open, at best, an endless tit-for-tat in one of the world’s most explosive regions and at worst spiral into a major military confrontation. But this is a war Israel will find hard to fight without American backing. As seen Saturday night, the United States has a critical role to play in defending Israel from Iran, and as such, it gets to have a say on Israel’s retaliatory actions.

For now, both the United States and Israel seem genuinely interested in avoiding a confrontation—at least with each other. The Biden administration has put aside the harsh tone used toward Netanyahu in recent months in favor of a subtle and nuanced approach. “We don’t seek a war with Iran, we don’t want to see this conflict broadened, widened, become something more regional, and we don’t want to see tensions escalate,” said Kirby, but stressed that it is up to the Israeli cabinet to decide. Another administration official, briefing reporters, said Biden urged Netanyahu to be “strategic” in the choices he makes regarding Iran.

And Israel, too, seems—at least for now—less confrontational in its approach to Biden’s request. Netanyahu has reportedly shelved plans for an immediate military response and is instead conducting consultations on the appropriate measure for Israel to take.


3. A Golden Opportunity to Mend Relations

There’s also a best-case scenario.

The Iranian attack may have changed the dynamics in the region in a way that sets the stage for a fresh start between Netanyahu and Biden. It goes like this: The United States has proved its full support and backing for Israel; Netanyahu can come to the Israeli people and explain that this proven American friendship gives him the assurance he needs to accept Biden’s approach and refrain from attacking Iran and to downsize the planned incursion into Rafah in the Gaza Strip; Biden responds with a White House invitation and a warm embrace, and both sides agree on a path forward in which isolating Iran takes center stage and the Gaza war is wound down.

Sound like a fantasy? It is. But relationships have been known to have pivotal moments, and this could be the one. A more realistic expectation would be for recent events to make both leaders—and their constituencies—more appreciative of the other. Bibi may still hold hard feelings toward Biden, but his supporters cannot ignore the president’s commitment to Israel. Democrats, on the other side, may dislike everything Netanyahu stands for, but this is a clear reminder of the real threats Bibi is forced to deal with.

4. Can Iran Force Congress to Do Its Job?

The ayatollahs in Iran probably didn’t have this in mind, but their decision to launch a massive attack against Israel may have had the unintended consequence of getting House Speaker Mike Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Schumer and President Biden to make a previously unlikely agreement.

The issue at stake is Biden’s request for more than $14 billion for Israel, a special aid package designed to help Israel meet the enormous needs caused by the war. Back in February, Biden bundled the aid with a larger assistance package for Ukraine and other global national security needs. Schumer tried to add tough border security measures to the package to make it more palatable to Republicans. Johnson, led by Republican hardliners and MAGA supporters, refused to pass any bill that included Ukraine aid. As a result, assistance for Israel has been stuck in Congress for months.

But now, in light of the brazen Iranian attack, things may be moving. Republicans are indicating a willingness to discuss options, as are Democrats. The need for U.S. aid, now clearer than ever, may push all sides closer and provide a rare moment of bipartisanship. And the credit goes to Tehran. 

5. Jewish Bipartisanship. That’s a Thing?

Speaking of rare bipartisan moments, take a look at this: A joint press release from Jewish politics’ biggest rivals The Republican Jewish Coalition and Democratic Majority for Israel.

In the statement, both groups state that they “rarely see eye to eye” but “today we are united in condemning Iran’s unwarranted, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attack against Israeli civilians—Jewish and Arab.”

The joint message also has a practical side to it, with both groups calling on Congress to pass the special aid package for Israel. “History will not forgive the failure of Congress to act. Let’s get it done!”

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