Inside story'We'll always come to Israel's defense, despite Gaza disputes'

How the US shifted from rapping Israel over Gaza to defending it against Iran

US official reveals Israel informed White House of Damascus strike at meeting on Rafah op, and president’s call with PM to discuss aid convoy strike began with coordinating on Iran

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A woman walks past a mural depicting US President Joe Biden as a superhero defending Israel on a street in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, April 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
A woman walks past a mural depicting US President Joe Biden as a superhero defending Israel on a street in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, April 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

The White House Situation Room was tense for several long minutes on Saturday evening after US President Joe Biden and his top aides were notified that Iran had simultaneously launched over 100 ballistic missiles at Israel.

Washington knew this strike was coming and had 10 days to coordinate with Jerusalem and other allies, but the number of ballistic missiles was higher than expected, and there was no guarantee that the collective of air defense systems — as sophisticated as they are — would be able to successfully intercept such a large barrage, as a senior administration official explained during a Sunday briefing with reporters. “It [was] a period of heightened emotion.”

In total, the Iranian attack comprised 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles and 120 ballistic missiles.

While a majority of those launches were intercepted by the IDF, it was the US that tipped off Israel to the attack once it began. US forces were also responsible for shooting down 80 of the UAVs and at least six of the ballistic missiles, according to US CENTCOM. Dozens of other launches were also intercepted by the UK, France and Jordan, working under a regional defense umbrella recently established by Washington.

Ninety-nine percent of the launches were ultimately thwarted, and only one Israeli was injured as a result of shrapnel from an intercepted missile, while an IDF airbase incurred just minor damage.

“As the results of the defenses came in — which is when we knew that preparations and planning had succeeded — there was a bit of a relief. You can imagine how tense those moments were,” recalled the senior Biden administration official, who had been in the Situation Room with the president.

“The events of the last 10 days have demonstrated that while we may have some disagreements — particularly on Gaza — the United States of America stands with Israel, and there’s no question that we will come to their defense when they are attacked,” the official added.

US President Joe Biden meets with his top Cabinet and National Security officials to discuss Iran’s attacks on Israel, at the White House, April 13, 2024. (White House)

From Rafah to Iran

Indeed, the Iran strike came amid the most significant deterioration in US-Israel ties since Biden entered office, due to mounting frustration with Jerusalem’s prosecution of the war in Gaza.

The deep displeasure over Israel’s handling of the humanitarian situation in the Strip led the US to come out against the final major operation Israel had planned for the war — an offensive in the southernmost Gaza city of Rafah aimed at dismantling Hamas’s remaining battalions there.

Convinced that the IDF wouldn’t be able to pull off such an invasion without endangering a significant number of the million-plus Palestinians sheltering in Rafah, the US convened a virtual meeting with top Israeli officials to discuss alternatives to the planned incursion.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog attended the meeting and used the opportunity to pull aside US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and White House Mideast czar Brett McGurk to inform them that Israel had carried out a strike on the consular annex of Iran’s embassy in Damascus, killing several top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps generals, the senior Biden administration official told reporters.

“We knew that would have repercussions,” the official said.

Four days later — after having received enough intelligence to conclude that Iran was planning a significant retaliatory attack — Biden instructed his aides “to defend Israel to the maximum extent possible and defeat the attack,” the official said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls US President Joe Biden from IDF’s Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 14, 2024. (GPO)

The US moved additional military assets into the eastern Mediterranean and recruited the UK, France and other allies to assist in thwarting the strike.

On April 4, Biden held a call with Netanyahu, which was scheduled by the White House in order to discuss the deadly Israeli strike on a World Central Kitchen aid convoy in Gaza. Nonetheless, the first issue that was discussed was the potential Iranian attack, the senior administration official revealed.

“We’ve been mindful in the preparations that… if successful, this attack could have caused an uncontrollable escalation of broader regional conflict — something we have worked day and night to avoid since October 7,” he said.

In the following days, top US officials held marathon calls with their Israeli counterparts and US CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael Kurilla was dispatched to Tel Aviv to coordinate preparations as closely as possible.

Biden was regularly updated, approving the deployment of an additional missile destroyer on the margins of his April 10 meeting with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, the senior official briefing reporters said.

Upon receiving intelligence that a strike was hours away, Biden cut short his weekend trip in Delaware and rushed back to the White House on Saturday afternoon to monitor the attack from the Situation Room.

The Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, with the lights of missile interceptions visible in the night sky, early on April 14, 2024, after Iran fired ballistic missiles at Israel. (Social media/X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

‘Time to slow down and think this through’

The president received real-time updates as US CENTCOM and European Command forces began actively engaging Iranian launches. Operating from the eastern Mediterranean Sea where they had recently been deployed, the USS Arleigh Burke and the USS Carney intercepted around half a dozen Iranian ballistic missiles, while a US Army Patriot missile battery shut down another one over Iraq.

The attack wound down within several hours, at which point the US received a message from Iran through Switzerland that it was done launching missiles and drones at Israel, the official said.

The Swiss channel had been used to send a series of messages between the US and Iran over the last two weeks, but the senior administration official insisted that Tehran did not tip off Washington to the strike. Other countries have said they were informed by the Islamic Republic, though.

At around 9 p.m. in DC (4 a.m. in Israel), Biden phoned Netanyahu to discuss the results of the attack, and Israel’s potential response to it. The president reiterated the US’s unwavering support for Israel but also urged the prime minister to “think carefully and strategically about the risk of escalation,” the official said.

There were reports that Biden was much more blunt regarding his opposition to an Israeli retaliatory strike after the US had just stuck its neck out for Israel, though the official briefing reporters Sunday sufficed with confirming that the president had informed the prime minister that the US would not join the IDF in attacking Iran if it chose to do so.

Pictures released by the Israeli Air Force showing planes returning after intercepting the direct attack from Iran, April 14, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

“The president told the prime minister that Israel really came out far ahead in this exchange — Israel took out Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leadership in the Levant; Iran tried to respond; and Israel has clearly demonstrated its military superiority, defeating this attack… in coordination with partners, [so let’s]… slow things down [and] think through,” the senior US official said.

“Nobody wants to run up the escalation ladder here,” the official continued, claiming that “Israel has made clear to us that they’re not looking for a significant escalation with Iran. They’re looking to protect themselves and defend themselves.”

It wasn’t until the sun rose on Sunday that it became clear just how limited the damage was at Nevatim Air Base — the only military target hit.

US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew subsequently paid a visit to one of the Arrow air defense systems that were responsible for shooting down the majority of the Iranian ballistic missiles.

“The success that was achieved was in part the product of years of investment and cooperation in developing these missile defense technologies,” the senior administration official noted.

Later Sunday, Biden convened a meeting of G7 leaders during which the forum coordinated on efforts to hold Iran accountable for the strike. There was a discussion about members following the US in designating the IRGC as a terror group in addition to coordinating on a new batch of sanctions against Iran.

Biden then phoned King Abdullah of Jordan, which stood out among the countries that assisted in thwarting the attack, given the risk it took exposing itself to retaliation from neighboring Iran.

The president also called the heads of the two US fighter squadrons responsible for dozens of aerial takedowns the night before, thanking them for their service.

“As for Iran, the president has been clear that their actions end here and the same applies for Iran’s proxies. If they take action against us, we’re fully prepared to defend our people and our interests and to hold Iran accountable, as we have shown a number of times over the last six months of this crisis,” the senior US official said.

Most Popular
read more: