How Might Israel Strike Back?

Iran’s massive drone and ballistic missile strikes on Israel failed to inflict significant damage, but Israeli leaders have vowed to respond to the aggression, although they avoided specifics. Israeli leaders face two questions: Should Israel retaliate, and if so, how?

On the one hand, Iran’s attack was unprecedented—a direct and open strike by an adversary on the Israeli homeland. Had it not been for Israel’s excellent defenses and help from the United States, United Kingdom, and Jordan, the consequences could have been devastating. On the other hand, the strike fizzled. A young girl was seriously injured in the attack, but beyond that there were no major losses, and given the scale of the strike that is impressive. Israel is even enjoying a rare moment of international support, a break from the near-constant criticism of the country over its war in Gaza.

The Netanyahu government has multiple goals, and these pull Israel in different directions when it comes to retaliation. Perhaps most importantly, Israel seeks to maintain deterrence. Since its inception, the Jewish state has been surrounded by foes, and despite peace deals and broader regional acceptance, it still has many enemies. Its security depends in part on those enemies being too afraid to menace Israel, and that in turn requires that those who attack Israel pay a stiff price for doing so.

Deterrence against Iran is particularly important. Iran supports an array of terrorist groups against Israel, regularly denounces Israel in its rhetoric, and has conducted bloody terrorist attacks of its own against Jewish and Israeli targets. Perhaps of greatest concern, Iran has an advanced nuclear program (though not yet nuclear weapons), and Israelis rightly worry that Iran would use nuclear weapons to threaten or attack Israel if deterrence is not robust.

Israeli leaders also seek to reassure the Israeli public: citizens need to know their governments will protect them in the face of external threats, and history has made Israeli Jews especially sensitive to security.

Just as important as what Israel seeks to achieve is what Israel seeks to avoid. Israel has its hands more than full. Israel’s military campaign in Gaza seems stalled, and a conflict with the formidable Lebanese Hezbollah looms as a possibility. In addition, relations with the United States are already strained over Gaza, and President Biden has told Netanyahu that the United States will not support more attacks on Iran, telling him: “You got a win. Take the win.”

Israel has at least four possible responses, all of which have limits and disadvantages. First, Israel could simply do nothing and de-escalate the situation—taking the win, as President Biden has urged. Doing nothing would relieve international audiences and the United States, which fear a regional war, and make Israeli leaders look statesmanlike at a time when they are regularly being depicted as brutal warmongers. Doing nothing, however, may leave the Israeli public unsatisfied. Security-minded Israelis would worry that Iran would be emboldened if it pays no price for this massive attack and that other enemies too might take heart.

A second option, on the other end of the spectrum, would be an open attack on Iran itself. Israel could conduct missile or airstrikes on Iranian military facilities such as airbases or missile launching sites. This might degrade Iran’s capacity somewhat, but more importantly it would be a message to Tehran that it will suffer if it attacks Israel, not just embarrass itself with a failed operation.

The risk of such an attack is that Iran would escalate, and that it would do so throughout the region. Iran might conduct terrorist attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets, as it has in the past, when Iran and its ally Hezbollah struck as far afield as Argentina and Bulgaria in the name of revenge. Perhaps most menacingly, Iran might unleash Hezbollah against Israeli territory. Although Hezbollah and Israel are exchanging blows each day, both have avoided all-out war. The group has a massive rocket arsenal that could overwhelm Israel’s air defenses; one sign of restraint in Iran’s original attack on Israel was that it did not involve Hezbollah. Guarding against Iran would also require military assets that are needed for Gaza and for a Lebanon contingency. Finally, Iran’s response might involve militant attacks on U.S. forces, with Iran justifying this with the claim that the United States and Israel are joined at the waist.

A more covert attack on Iran itself is a third and less risky possibility, although it is also less satisfying for the Israeli public. Sabotage of Iran’s military facilities or a cyberattack, for example, would also send a message to Tehran, albeit one less dramatic than an open military strike. Israel has reportedly conducted these types of attacks in the past, such as the 2021 sabotage of the Natanz enrichment site. This is less risky in terms of escalation, as Iran does not necessarily need to respond publicly to save face, but the message is far more muted.

A fourth option is to continue, perhaps at a more aggressive pace, operations against Iranian military and intelligence figures outside Iran. The attack on Iran’s consulate in Syria that killed several senior Iranian military leaders was the proximate cause of the latest round of fighting, so the escalation potential of this option is clearly high. However, it would also send a message to Tehran that Iran’s attempt to intimidate Israel has failed and reassure the Israeli people that the government continues to target those who would target Israel.

An important U.S. role in all this is to reassure Israel—and make clear to countries like Iran—that the United States will remain engaged in the region and stand by its allies. Israel’s deterrence rests in part on its own capabilities, but having the United States in its corner makes countries like Iran more cautious, and U.S. and allied military support against Iran’s attacks sends a message that Israel is not alone in the face of aggression.

Daniel Byman is a senior fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Daniel Byman
Senior Fellow, Transnational Threats Project