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How Israel is likely to respond to overnight strikes by Iran

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

As Admiral Kirby just mentioned, Israel's war cabinet has been meeting in the wake of the overnight attack from Iran. Let's bring in Natan Sachs. He's the director of the center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Thank you for being with us.

NATAN SACHS: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So what's your take? Is a diplomatic or a military response more likely from Israel?

SACHS: Well, there's very little diplomacy between the sides, and so you will expect an Israeli response. The big question is when and how. If the response falls back into the rules of the game, the unwritten rules of the game, where it might be in Syria against Iranian targets or Hezbollah targets or something that is deniable, that may happen in Iran itself, perhaps something big, even, but it's not overtly from Israeli territory, then we've seen - and if it's not happening immediately, then we've seen an attempt at some sort of deescalation.

If we see an overt attack soon that is clearly attributable to Israel on Iranian territory, then we could expect this cycle to continue and escalate, in fact. The security cabinet - the Israeli security cabinet is meeting, as we know. There's a lot of pressure there to show some kind of response and resolve.

But the two messages from the United States also weigh very heavy on the leaders, on Netanyahu and the other crucial people inside the security cabinet. One is that the United States will not participate in such an attack. And second, the great success and the support that Israel got from allies - the United States, Britain, others, Jordan, even - in thwarting this attack - and as we heard, the message from Washington is - was this was a great success, and therefore, Israel need not retaliate.

RASCOE: Well, do you think that Netanyahu will listen to the Biden administration and other allies who want Israel to be measured in its response?

SACHS: It's a close call, and it's very hard to predict when exactly a decision will be made. The pressures on both sides are strong. Traditionally, Netanyahu would be relatively cautious. Although he has very bellicose rhetoric, until the past year, he has been a cautious leader in terms of the use of force. And generally speaking, Israel would be loath to go into such an operation without the support, at least tacit support, of the United States.

The circumstances, of course, are very different. Israel is in the context of its - one of its hardest wars ever. And there's a lot of domestic pressure to show resolve, especially with such an overt and attributable attack where Iran is taking responsibility for it - the first time in history that Iran has attacked Israel openly this way. Israelis were waiting there for hours with the missiles - the various kinds of projectiles coming their way. Nonetheless, 99% of them perhaps were shot down. There was one Israeli girl severely injured, but overall, the operation was a great success. So there is some leeway. I would expect Netanyahu may hold back.

RASCOE: Is this attack likely to shift perceptions inside Israel about Netanyahu and his government's hard-line approach to defending Israel?

SACHS: This attack, in itself, won't change much. Netanyahu is deep underwater in the polls anyway. He is seen by Israelis as responsible as head of the state - as responsible for what happened on October 7. Israelis are still very much traumatized, deeply traumatized, by what happened then.

And - but on the case - in the case of Iran, there's a lot of support for a hard line. Very few Israelis see any room for diplomatic negotiation with Iran of any kind simply because Iran says, very clearly, it is not open to that. And so there's a lot of support for the hard line.

Nonetheless, bringing Israel to this moment where it is not only in very bad standing across the world, embroiled in a six-month terrible war, and now also attacked directly from Iran - that doesn't show great leadership by Netanyahu. Certainly, it may take time, but I imagine it won't help his standing.

RASCOE: That's Natan Sachs, who directs the center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

SACHS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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