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This stands to be a particularly tense week in the Middle East, even by the standards of an already volatile region.

Iran has promised to attack Israeli assets somewhere in the world, which may spark a widening of war in Gaza, perhaps roping in the United States. At the same time, cease-fire talks in Cairo have reached what one member of Israel’s war Cabinet calls “an opportune moment.”

Rarely in this 6-month-old battle have all the parties in the region—combatants, negotiators, enablers, and nervous sideliners—walked such a narrow tightrope between a provisional peace and an escalating war.

Iranian officials say they will mount an attack sometime after Ramadan, which ends Tuesday, in retaliation to Israel’s April 1 attack on Iran’s consulate in Syria, which killed seven officers of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including two generals. Israel has put its forces on high alert in anticipation of the attack.

Israel carried out the attack, for reasons as yet unknown, without first informing the Biden administration, even though an Iranian attack on Israel could draw in the United States. Biden placed a second aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean shortly after Oct. 7 to deter precisely such an attack.

Which way things go from here depends, in part, on Iranian and Israeli calculations—and in part on sheer luck.

If Tehran’s rulers decide to mount a “proportionate” attack with a goal of “restoring deterrence” (i.e., making clear to Israel that it shouldn’t repeat such an attack), they might launch missiles at an Israeli embassy somewhere in the world—probably not at the embassy in Washington, as an attack on American territory might provoke U.S. retaliation.

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If they do go beyond proportionality and attack a target inside Israel or the United States, that might reflect one of two things: Either Tehran’s leaders don’t understand deterrence theory—or they want to enter the war directly.

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Either way, this would be a grave or bold departure. Iranian officials disclaimed any involvement in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and kept a tight leash on Hezbollah, their terrorist ally in southern Lebanon, which Hamas had hoped would join in, striking Israel from the north. Some Iran-backed militias in Lebanon and Syria launched missiles at U.S. and Israeli bases. But after one such strike killed three American troops, the U.S. retaliated with force and diplomacy—launching a massive wave of attacks and killing 40 militiamen while also holding secret talks with Tehran. Since then, the militias have been quiet.

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Which is why Israel’s attack on the Iranian officers in Syria was so puzzling—and provocative.

Even if Iran takes the more cautious option in responding to the attack, say by launching missiles at some Israeli embassy, spiraling escalation would still be a possibility. Israel has not officially claimed responsibility for the strike on the consulate in Syria. To the extent officials have conceded it off the record, they say it was in response to a long pattern of strikes against Israel by Iranian-backed militias. (One of the generals killed was the commander of Iran’s military activities in the region.) So, Israel may feel some need to strike back—which may spur Iran to strike back again, especially since Israel’s philosophy of retaliation tends toward poking out more than just one eye for an eye.

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Meanwhile, Biden placed those aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean to deter an Iranian attack on Israel. Therefore, if Israel is struck directly, he might feel compelled to order a U.S. response. On Friday, Iranian officials warned Biden not to take any action in response to their impending attack against Israel. “Stay away so you won’t get hurt,” read one written message.

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Will Biden heed the warning? It depends, in part, on the nature and intensity of Iran’s attack, if there is one. However, the fact that Iranians sent this warning publicly makes it more likely that Biden won’t stay away. For reasons of both geopolitics and domestic politics, he won’t want to give the impression that he’s kowtowing to Tehran’s demands. Will this fact deter Iran from mounting an attack—or make a wider war more likely?

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It is undeniable that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put Biden—and all of us—in this predicament. Had he consulted his American ally before the attack, Biden would have advised him very strongly against it; the timing, as we now see, was terrible. Some therefore speculate that Netanyahu’s action amounted to a deliberate attempt to draw Washington into the war.

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Yet, at the same time, other maneuvers in the region could foretell an Israel-Gaza cease-fire—which, among other things, might provide Iran with a rationale to hold off on its attack.

Over the weekend, Israel withdrew an entire division of troops from southern Gaza, leaving just one brigade in the area. (There are three brigades in a division—a few thousand troops in each brigade.) The reason is unclear. The official explanation is that the troops needed rest and rehabilitation before mounting their massive offensive against Rafah, the southern Gaza town where Hamas’ last remnants are hiding. But some believe Netanyahu and his war Cabinet are secretly reluctant to go into Rafah. Biden has warned them not to do so unless they have a plan for protecting the 1.2 million civilians in the area, many of whom fled from their homes in the north at the start of the war. And it seems there is no such plan; given the logistical problems, as well as the unalterable geography, any such plan could well be impossible.

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The partial withdrawal comes just after Israel’s decision to open up three more humanitarian corridors into northern Gaza and to send a delegation to Cairo for another round of talks about a cease-fire and an exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners. Both of these steps were taken in response to Biden’s pressure after Israel’s attack on a World Central Kitchen convoy killed seven WCK workers.

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In this context, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday that this may be an “opportune moment” to bring about the release of the hostages, though he added that exploiting the moment will require “difficult decisions.”

Gallant, a member of the emergency war Cabinet, is also one of Netanyahu’s political rivals. Nevertheless, like the other Cabinet members and much of Israel’s population, Gallant said that after any agreed-upon truce, Israel “will return to the fighting and do everything we must.” This includes eliminating Hamas’ brigade in Rafah. Israel has already destroyed the other four brigades in the six months of brutal fighting.

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He claimed that Israel’s military successes “enable us to be flexible” in the negotiations in order to bring back the hostages. However, he said, “there’s another side” in the talks—and at least so far, that other side, Hamas, has rejected all proposals put on the table.

Israel has agreed to a six-week cease-fire, during which Hamas would free 42 of the more than 100 hostages it still holds—mainly women, children, the elderly, and the sick. In exchange, Israel will free 10 times as many prisoners, withdraw some of its troops northward, and allow some citizens of northern Gaza to go home.

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Hamas says this is not enough. It wants a permanent end to the war, the return of all Gazan Palestinians to their homes, and a total withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. Israelis counter that this would amount to a surrender, leaving Hamas in control of the territory and capable of mounting further attacks on Israel.

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The disagreement seems irreconcilable. A deal, even a short-term one, will require outside pressure on Hamas—mainly from Qatar, which is Hamas’ main supplier and its mediator with the rest of the world, but also perhaps from Egypt, which could open its gates on Gaza’s southern border to relieve the territory’s misery. Other countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, would have to coordinate political and economic rebuilding of Gaza after the war is over.

All of this goes way beyond any steps that these countries have taken to help Palestinians or stabilize the region in the past. It may be too hard, physically, logistically, and politically. But letting everything unravel into chaos, to the point of triggering a regionwide war with Iran, is something that these countries would go to great lengths to avoid as well.

The difficult choices, on everyone’s part, begin this week.

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Iran Is Planning to Strike Back Against Israel. There Are a Few Ways This Could Go.

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08.04.2024
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This stands to be a particularly tense week in the Middle East, even by the standards of an already volatile region.

Iran has promised to attack Israeli assets somewhere in the world, which may spark a widening of war in Gaza, perhaps roping in the United States. At the same time, cease-fire talks in Cairo have reached what one member of Israel’s war Cabinet calls “an opportune moment.”

Rarely in this 6-month-old battle have all the parties in the region—combatants, negotiators, enablers, and nervous sideliners—walked such a narrow tightrope between a provisional peace and an escalating war.

Iranian officials say they will mount an attack sometime after Ramadan, which ends Tuesday, in retaliation to Israel’s April 1 attack on Iran’s consulate in Syria, which killed seven officers of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including two generals. Israel has put its forces on high alert in anticipation of the attack.

Israel carried out the attack, for reasons as yet unknown, without first informing the Biden administration, even though an Iranian attack on Israel could draw in the United States. Biden placed a second aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean shortly after Oct. 7 to deter precisely such an attack.

Which way things go from here depends, in part, on Iranian and Israeli calculations—and in part on sheer luck.

If Tehran’s rulers decide to mount a “proportionate” attack with a goal of “restoring deterrence” (i.e., making clear to Israel that it shouldn’t repeat such an attack), they might launch missiles at an Israeli embassy somewhere in the world—probably not at the embassy in Washington, as an attack on American territory might provoke U.S. retaliation.

Advertisement

If they do go beyond proportionality and attack a target inside Israel or the United States, that might reflect one of two things: Either Tehran’s leaders don’t understand deterrence theory—or they want to enter the war directly.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Either way, this would be a grave or bold departure. Iranian officials disclaimed any involvement in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and kept a tight leash on Hezbollah, their terrorist ally in southern Lebanon, which Hamas had hoped would join in, striking Israel from the north. Some Iran-backed militias in........

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