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Opinion | How Iran’s attack will force Israel to rethink its security

WorldOpinion | How Iran’s attack will force Israel to rethink its security

Some experts say Israel became a de facto nuclear weapons power in September 1979 when it conducted a secret nuclear test but this was neither confirmed nor denied. Since then, Israel has projected an image of infallible deterrence derived from its opaque weapons of mass destruction (WMD) status and its robust conventional military capability.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have combined hi-tech equipment, intelligence-gathering, surveillance and a combat efficiency reputation aimed at deterring regional adversaries. The apocalyptic Samson option – the use of nuclear weapons – was seen as the final resort to an existential threat to Israel.

However, the October 7 attack by Hamas and the strike on April 13, which Iran said it conducted as retaliation for the Israeli bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus, have breached the infallibility of Israeli deterrence. Israel’s adversaries found openings in the impregnable defence shield that Tel Aviv had assured its citizens would always protect them from external threats.
Mohamad Hassouna stands close to where his 7-year-old daughter Amina was wounded by an incoming projectile at their Bedouin village in the southern Negev desert on April 14. Photo: AFP

At the tactical level, while Israel and its partners said 99 per cent of the projectiles fired were intercepted, a very small number were able to get through. An Arab Bedouin girl is reported to have been wounded in the attack. Some damage was also reported at an airbase from where Israel is thought to have conducted the attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus. The inference is that when drones are used, no air-defence system can be totally unbreachable.

There was enough time for the IDF to prepare for an attack between the Damascus consular strike and Iran’s reprisal, especially in light of reports that Tehran alerted the US of its retaliation days before. This almost slow-motion attack trajectory was a signal for the IDF and, consequently, Israel’s air defences boasted a very high success rate of intercepting the projectiles fired.

Support for the IDF by the US, UK and France must also be taken into account. Countries in the region like Jordan and Saudi Arabia also enabled the Israeli effort. Experts estimate that Iran used fairly inexpensive drones along with a smaller missile component.

The Israeli military displays what they claim is an Iranian ballistic missile which they retrieved from the Dead Sea after Iran’s retaliatory aerial strike, at Julis military base in southern Israel, on April 16. Photo: Reuters

Israel mounted a comprehensive air defence effort and expended far more costly military inventory. Preliminary estimates of the April 13 operations point to a relatively low-cost Iranian offensive countered by a very intense, high-expenditure air defence effort involving the assets of Israel, the US, UK and France. Such a defensive posture and response is not sustainable for Israel in the long term.

Given the tangled history and geopolitics of the West Asian region, Israeli security planners will have to develop an effective template that internalises the deterrence lapses book-ended by the October 7 and April 13 setbacks. Nuclear weapons do not deter determined terror groups, as we have learned from the events of September 11, the 2008 Mumbai attacks and cases of extremist violence in Russia.

Israel is now part of that group of nations, where the possession of WMD capabilities does not provide any failproof insurance against rival non-state entities taking recourse to terrorism or against states that enable and support their activities.

Given the sociopolitical choices Israel has made in relation to Palestine, Iran and the Arab world in general, the IDF will need to define a more appropriate form of deterrence against both state and non-state challenges to ensure credible security for Israeli citizens.

While Iran may be seen as a more abiding challenge for Tel Aviv, with hardliners demonising the US and Israel, the challenge posed by Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels is much more volatile. Both Israel and the region have been convulsed by the covert and direct actions of such proxies.
Israel is expected to respond militarily to the Iranian attack. At the time of writing, reports say a response may be “imminent”. Such a course of action will perhaps ensure the survival of the beleaguered government of Benjamin Netanyahu and also increase the probability of escalation – but the deterrence conundrum for Israel will remain.
With the war in Ukraine simmering and Gaza devastated, West Asia should not be allowed to slide into greater regional turmoil and bloodshed, leading to further disruption of the global economy with dire consequences for human security. The major powers that have the leverage with Iran and Israel must pursue quiet diplomacy with equitable firmness.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank based in New Delhi

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