Op-edThe fallout is only just beginning

Israel warded off a huge Iranian attack, but that success is not the same as a victory

Eight insights into the momentous events of the past few hours, when Iran targeted Israel as never before, Israel defended itself with allied help, and the regime’s nuclear threat became ever clearer

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

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

1. The opposite of October 7: Israel’s handling of the unprecedented Iranian drone and missile attack overnight Saturday was the complete opposite of the unfathomable catastrophe of October 7.

In utter contrast to the failures at every level that enabled Hamas to invade six months ago, Israel — with considerable input from the US and regional allies — was braced for the Iranian attack. Its intelligence on what was about to unfold was accurate. It prepared effectively to meet the onslaught. Its military establishment, and especially the Air Force and pilots, rose to meet the danger. And, again with the assistance of the US and regional allies, Israel’s leadership thwarted the attack — fulfilling its obligation to keep its citizenry safe from enemy aggression.

2. By the numbers: According to the IDF, Iran launched 170 drones at Israel — not one of which reached Israeli airspace. All were intercepted in the course of their hours-long journeys — by the IAF, the US, UK, France and Jordan.

Iran also fired 30 cruise missiles, some of which are reportedly capable of carrying 1,000-kilogram (1-ton) warheads. Again, according to the IDF, not one of them reached Israeli airspace. All were intercepted earlier in their approximately two-hour journeys, 25 of them by the IAF.

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)

Finally, and most dramatically, Iran launched 120 ballistic missiles at Israel — and did so even as it was telling the United Nations that its military action against Israel was “concluded.” Along their ultra-rapid routes, almost all of them were downed by Israel’s long-range Arrow air defense system, and several reportedly by the US. Less than a handful evaded Israel’s defenses and hit the Nevatim Airbase in southern Israel, where F-35s are based, causing what the IDF said was minor damage to infrastructure. The runway was not impacted, and the combat planes’ operations were not affected.

3. The US alliance…: Relations between the Netanyahu government and the Biden administration have grown increasingly strained over the six-months-plus of Israel’s war to dismantle Hamas in Gaza, with the US openly fuming at the civilian death toll and inadequate humanitarian aid, White House officials rejecting IDF plans for a major ground offensive in the final Hamas stronghold of Rafah, and the president personally and politically mistrustful of the prime minister.

In the days ahead of Iran’s anticipated response to the IAF’s alleged April 1 killing of leading figures in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps inside Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus, however, the US sprang to Israel’s defense. It sought to deter Iran diplomatically, coordinated intimately with Israel in preparing for the defensive action, dispatched its CENTCOM chief, shared intel, activated regional allies, and mobilized its own forces. When the attack began, US intel was critical in enabling the immensely effective response by Israel, the US itself, and regional partners including, but not limited to, Jordan.

The partnership was concrete. And years of military preparation, coordination, and innumerable regional drills bore fruit.

US President Joe Biden, along with members of his national security team, receive an update on an ongoing airborne attack on Israel from Iran, as they meet in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, April 13, 2024. (Adam Schultz/The White House via AP)

4. … And its limits: In their 25-minute phone call, held after it was clear that Iran’s onslaught had been blocked, however, US President Joe Biden reportedly told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “You got a win; take the win,” and not to respond militarily.

Were Israel to ignore this advice, he reportedly made plain, the US would not, in contrast to Saturday night, participate alongside Israel.

The US has also reportedly made clear, in the wake of the April 1 raid in Damascus, that it wants advance warning from Israel of any future such airstrikes — early enough in the process to be able to have its say.

It seems fairly clear that the US regards the alleged IAF strike that killed IRGC general Mohammad Reza Zahedi as misconceived, and would have opposed it if it had been informed in sufficient time, rather than shortly before the blast. Some Israeli officials maintain, however, that Zahedi was a highly prized and necessary target, as the most senior Iranian military officer in Syria and Lebanon, responsible for orchestrating terrorism against Israel from across those borders and in and from the West Bank.

Assuming it was carried out by the IAF, the strike would have necessitated approval from the political leadership, and the political leadership, in turn, would have sought an assessment from the security establishment regarding Iran’s likely response. Unconfirmed reports in recent days have suggested that Israel believed the response would be relatively limited.

A TV report shows missile alerts across Israel, as Iran fires ballistic missiles and the IDF moves to intercept them, shortly before 2 a.m. on April 14, 2024 (Channel 12 screenshot)

Israel, it should be noted, has reportedly targeted very senior Iranian officials in the past — including the “father” of the Iranian nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, on Iranian soil — without prompting anything like the Saturday night response. The difference, this time, is at least partly a likely consequence of Israel’s weakened deterrent capacity over the past year-plus, and especially given the failures of October 7.

Israel has for decades prided itself on its capacity to defend itself, by itself, against all enemies, albeit with an immense reliance on US arms supplies and US-led diplomatic support. Saturday night marked the first significant instance of Israel defending itself with the direct, active and crucial participation of the US and other allies. And that is now apparently being followed by a US military bearhug — a constraining embrace by a superpower ally that currently believes it understands Israel’s interests better than Israel does and that also has its own and its other allies’ interests to look after.

5. A success with profound limitations: Biden hailed Israel’s “remarkable capacity” to defend itself, and declared that Israel had sent “a clear message to its foes that they cannot effectively threaten the security of Israel.” But it is absolutely certain that Israel’s foes are not reading any such ostensibly “clear message.”

Hezbollah remains firmly ensconced across the northern border. We wait to definitively learn the considerations that saw Hezbollah continue to refrain on Saturday from the kind of colossal onslaught on Israel, including with precision-guided missiles, for which Israel has no adequate defense. But it is waging near-relentless conflict, and tens of thousands of Israelis have no foreseeable prospect of being able to safely return to their homes in northern Israel.

People take cover in a reinforced room in Jerusalem, as Iran fires drones and missiles at Israel, early on April 14, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The Houthis are apparently beyond anybody’s control — an Iranian proxy run wild.

Hamas is hunkered down in Gaza, a quarter of its military strength and much of its leadership intact, uninterested in a hostage deal, confident that it will survive the war, and rebuild and rearm its war machine.

While the US president may have told Netanyahu, “You got a win,” the resounding success of Saturday’s defense is not the same as a victory.

And the Iranian leadership plainly does not regard Saturday night’s assault as a defeat.

Tehran without doubt anticipated wreaking considerable harm with its long-prepared, diverse and potentially immensely potent mix of drones and missiles. There will likely be a great deal of dismay and recrimination at the lack of military success.

But after years in which Israel threatened relentlessly to target Iran’s nuclear facilities — and indeed engaged in a series of operations to set back the ayatollahs’ nuclear program — it was Iran that launched the first major attack between the two enemies. It bragged that it was able to scare the Israeli public for days ahead of the much-touted assault. And it now claims to have changed the equation — warning that future Israeli strikes on Iranian territory, including its international diplomatic premises, will henceforth again be met by Iranian retaliatory strikes on Israel.

Rather than being chastened by the failure to cause graver harm in Israel, humiliated by the defensive capacities shown by Israel and its allies, or deterred by the evidence of the partnership between the US, Israel and others in the region, it is warning Israel against retaliation for Saturday’s attack, and warning the US, too, that its bases will be targeted if it joins in.

Demonstrators wave Iran’s flag and Palestinian flags as they gather at Palestine Square in Tehran on April 14, 2024, after Iran launched a drone and missile attack on Israel. (Atta Kenare / AFP)

6. The Israeli response: Ostensibly informed sources in the prime minister’s orbit were asserting, even as the Iranian attack was still in progress, that Israel’s response would be rapid and substantial. According to one report, Biden, in their call, persuaded Netanyahu not to approve an immediate retaliation. The war cabinet was meeting on Sunday afternoon to discuss the issue further.

Israeli officials are privately indicating that a response needs to be predicated on what Iran attempted to do — terrify a nation, inflict casualties and devastation, destroy a crucial air base and more — rather than the little that it actually managed.

They also note that the ostensible new Iranian equation, with the threat of an Iranian response to future Israeli strikes and operations, cannot be allowed to take hold.

The temptation to hit back fast will be acute — and Netanyahu will be under political pressure to act. This would, of course, be in defiance of the US, and would threaten the coalition that pulled together so effectively on Saturday.

A response there needs to be — one that is strategically planned.

7. The critical threat: In this context, it is worth remembering the events of early 1991, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq fired 42 Scud missiles into an Israel that had no defense against them. (The hope and belief that the Patriot missile defense system could intercept the Scuds proved misplaced.) Then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was persuaded not to hit back at Iraq, largely by the Bush administration, which warned him that an Israeli response risked destroying the coalition of allies gearing up to take on Saddam.

That episode underlines that there is more than one way to face down a regional aggressor, and that an immediate retaliatory lashing-out is not always the most effective.

Saturday night’s thwarted Iranian effort to cause devastating harm in Israel underlines, as never before, the supreme imperative — for Israel, the United States and life-affirming nations in the region and worldwide — to prevent the Islamic Republic from completing its nuclear weapons drive

Saddam was erroneously believed to be developing a nuclear capability, while the Iranians are categorically a long way down the path to nuclear weapons and have the capacity to break out to the bomb at fairly short notice.

Saturday night’s thwarted Iranian effort to cause devastating harm in Israel underlines, as never before, the supreme imperative — for Israel, the United States and life-affirming nations in the region and worldwide — to prevent the Islamic Republic from completing its nuclear weapons drive. Imagine if Iran had had nuclear warheads at its disposal on Saturday night.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, visits an exhibition of the country’s nuclear achievements, at his office compound in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, June 11, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, via AP, File)

An Iran with this leadership and a nuclear capability is simply unthinkable. Whatever the complex pros and cons of a direct response to Saturday night’s attack, that wider imperative — and the diplomatic and military alliances necessary to stop Iran — has to be the prime consideration.

Following the events of Saturday night, after all, Iran can be expected to pursue its nuclear program with still greater determination.

Thwarting it will necessitate the deepest possible Israeli alliance with the United States and other potential allies.

Israelis sit in a coffee shop in Netanya, on April 14, 2024, hours after Iran fired hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

8. And finally: It is quite staggering, the rapidity with which Israel has moved in the past few hours from believing itself to be on the verge of regional war to a return to something akin to routine.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that life in Israel has been anything but routine since October 7 — that there is an ongoing war in Gaza, 129 hostages abducted that day to save, a northern border zone that is unlivable, and escalating tension in the West Bank — it seems beyond premature to believe that this unprecedented Iran-Israel open conflict is anything like over.

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