How domestic politics is determining Israeli actions

Israel has carried out a missile strike on Iran in retaliation for a recent barrage of missiles and drones launched by the Iranians towards Israeli soil.

Notably, Israel’s strike against Iran appears to have been more symbolic than substantive. Nevertheless, the overnight Israeli strike is the latest escalation in tensions between the two countries.

The hostilities boiled over after Israel’s April 1 attack on Iran’s embassy in Damascus, which killed a senior Iranian military leader. Israel, in eliminating a key figure in the Quds Force, sought to undermine Iran’s influence with its proxy forces in the region, most notably Hezbollah and the Houthi.

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Western strikes against Houthis risk igniting a powderkeg in the Middle East

Reputations at stake

Iran soon retaliated. To do otherwise would have damaged the Iranian government’s reputation among both its allies and its citizens.

But the form that Iranian retaliation took is a key indication of Iran’s intentions. Its choice to mostly use slow-moving drones and cruise missiles, even though on a large scale, is demonstrative of its own relative weakness.

The Israeli Iron Dome air defence system launches to intercept missiles fired from Iran in central Israel on April 14, 2024, after Iran launched its first direct military attack against Israel.
(AP Photo/Tomer Neuberg)

Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system and U.S. military bases in the region made the likely impact of Iran’s attack minimal.

Iran, in choosing a means to strike Israel that was easily countered, seemingly sought to symbolically strike back at the Israelis by providing an avenue for the cycle of violence to end by not inflicting significant damage. This effort, however, ignores the domestic situation within Israel that ultimately fuelled the country’s decision to strike targets in Iran in the early morning of April 19.

The proxy dilemma

Since the Iranian Revolution, Iran, through the Quds Force and its predecessors, has actively courted several proxy groups in the Middle East to increase its strategic influence. Most prominent among these groups is Hezbollah, a militant group turned political party based out of Lebanon.

Hezbollah came into existence in response to Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in the 1980s, and received extensive support from Iran. Hezbollah has been a thorn in Israel’s side ever since, engaging in small-scale skirmishes along the border with Israel since the Hamas attacks on Israelis on Oct. 7, 2023.

While these proxy groups have increased Iran’s political influence and strategic options in the Middle East, they can simultaneously be a burden for the country’s leadership because they aren’t under Iran’s complete control. Furthermore, they can also create pressure on Iran’s leadership to radicalize their stances to avoid losing influence over these groups.

For Iran, this presents a strategic dilemma. Much Iranian influence and prestige among its proxy groups is based on being seen as opposing Israel and the U.S. and leading the so-called Axis of Resistance, a group of state and non-state entities centred in Iran that oppose Israel and the American presence in the region.

Read more:
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Iran, therefore, has tried to thread the needle by appearing to support its proxies and oppose Israel and the U.S. while simultaneously seeking to limit the damage that any provocations would cause Iran’s interests.

Iran’s drone and missile strikes were designed to give Israel an off-ramp. This off-ramp, however, only works if one disregards Israel’s domestic politics.

A woman in jeans and a head scarf walks past a banner showing missiles.
A woman walks past a banner showing missiles being launched in northern Tehran on April 19, 2024 following Israeli drone strikes on Iran. A decorative sign reads ‘Allah’ on the missiles.
(AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

A coalition of many

Israel’s government was in a tenuous position before the war in Gaza.

The 2022 elections returned a fractured Knesset, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was only able to form a coalition government that included several far-right parties. The small size of his majority meant that far-right partners were able to demand concessions to support his government.

The Oct. 7 attacks initially unified Israeli society behind the government. The way Israel has conducted the war, however, has caused this support to decline in some circles. The government’s inability to negotiate a release for the remaining hostages held by Hamas remains a festering wound in Israeli politics.

Ironically, the decision of Israel’s political establishment to rally around the state exasperated these problems. National Unity, the chief opposition party, supported the government. National Unity’s leader, Benny Gantz, formed a war cabinet with Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant to direct the war effort.

Three older men sit in a row at a table with blue and white flags behind them.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Galant and cabinet minister Benny Gantz speak during a news conference in Tel Aviv in October 2023, two weeks after the Hamas attacks.
(Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Gantz has emerged as a voice of moderation in Israel’s response to Iran. As a former chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 2011 to 2015, Gantz knows better than most people in government the many strategic problems Israel faces if tensions spin out of control.

While acknowledging that Israel would retaliate for Iran’s missile and drone attacks, he stated Israel would do so “in the place, time and manner it chooses.” Gantz, by creating ambiguity in Israel’s response, actually worked to de-escalate the tension.

Netanyahu’s hand forced?

The smaller far-right parties in Netanyahu’s coalition that are outside the war cabinet, however, likely forced the prime minister’s hand.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party, has stated that Israel needs to “go crazy” in its response.

A man wearing a yarmulke speaks into a microphone.
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, in July 2023.
(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich stated that if Israel’s response “resonates throughout the Middle East for generations to come — we will win.”

Netanyahu, with a tenuous domestic position and needing the support of his far-right allies, likely felt he had to act.

What’s next?

From a strictly military standpoint, Israel has achieved a victory in its exchanges with Iran. It eliminated a leader of the Quds Force, and Iran’s retaliation did not manage to breach the defences of Israel or its allies. War, however, is said to be the continuation of politics by other means.

In this case, Israel’s domestic politics trumped otherwise rational strategic calculations. Iran previously stated on several occasions that Israeli retaliation would be responded to in kind.

Now, the world waits to see if Israel’s latest strike against Iran leads to a broader regional escalation.

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