Netanyahu Has Brought Us to the Brink of War With Iran

The terrifying escalation of attacks between Israel and Iran is a predictable result of Benjamin Netanyahu’s clear desire to start a war with Iran — enabled, like everything else Netanyahu has done since October 7, by Joe Biden.

Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at the Palmachim Airbase near the city of Rishon LeZion on July 5, 2023. (Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images)

Even in a world that practically runs on industrial levels of political amnesia and hypocrisy, the events of the last few days have been something. Here’s the broad narrative that officials and commentators from the United States, Europe, and Israel have been busy selling the world since Iran’s flurry of military strikes on Israel this weekend:

The Iranian state, a cross between ISIS and the Third Reich, recklessly launched an unprovoked attack on an Israel that was minding its own business, ratcheting up tensions between the two countries and single-handedly bringing the region to the brink of war. The incident, a dangerous and inexplicable escalation that was only stopped thanks to the timely intervention of Israel’s partners and neighbor states, is a reminder of Iran’s long record of terrorism, disregard for international law, and hostility to peace. It points to the urgent need for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to condemn and even sanction Iran, at minimum, if not finally take the gloves off and attack it directly — possibly even carry out regime change, so it can finally stop senselessly threatening Israel and its other neighbors.

You do not need some idealized view of Iran’s repressive, theocratic, and militaristic government to understand this self-serving version of events has little to do with reality.

Iran’s attack, as alarming and potentially disastrous as it was, was neither inexplicable nor unprovoked. It was in direct response to Israel’s outrageous bombing of an Iranian consulate building in Syria two weeks ago, which killed two high-ranking Iranian generals and damaged the nearby Canadian embassy. The United States tends to sharply criticize other countries for breaching the inviolability of embassies, even taking Cuba to task for the fact that its embassy workers there were hit by a likely psychosomatic illness that had nothing to do with foreign subterfuge.

Yet this time, the US government didn’t even bother to so much as verbally criticize Israel’s very real bombing of a consular building, simply ramping up the flow of weapons in the aftermath. In fact, while most Security Council members condemned or at least expressed horror at this violation of long-standing international norms at the time, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom alone refused to do so, using the opportunity to suggest that it was Iran that was responsible for the attack on its own consulate.

This comes on top of a series of provocations over the past six months by the Israeli government, which, apparently unsatisfied with the mass murder it’s been allowed to carry out in Gaza, has been desperately trying to start multiple other wars in its immediate surroundings.

Since the start of the war, Israel has routinely bombed Syria and Lebanon, including its capital Beirut, the last time fears of a regional war briefly spiked then subsided thanks only to the target’s unwillingness to take the bait. With Iran alone, Israel has assassinated a spate of Iranian military figures before this latest act, which amounts to a direct strike on Iranian soil.

To call what Israel did the other week a provocation, in other words, is a massive understatement: it was an outright act of war. And it’s one that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew well would elicit a destructive response from Iran.

That Israel and others were able to shoot down nearly all of the hundreds of drones and missiles before they did any damage is less a testament to their military capabilities than the fact that this was a calculated part of Iran’s approach. Tehran, which throughout this war has shown no interest in getting into a direct war with Israel, warned Israel’s neighbors in advance that the strikes were coming, as well as the United States through diplomatic back channels days before the attack, while making clear its disinterest in any further escalation.

This should be sobering for those Israel supporters who used the foiled strike as an occasion for a victory dance over the impregnability of Israel’s air defenses and thus a reason to simply keep escalating: in an actual war, Iran won’t be doing the courtesy of telegraphing its strikes days in advance.

But there’s reason to believe even this calibrated but terrifyingly risky bit of Iranian retaliation could have been avoided. Iran’s permanent mission to the UN has said in the wake of the attack that they had wanted a UNSC condemnation of the consulate bombing that never came, and in fact, Iran has, in the past, been content to accept such a thing as an alternative to military action, as when the Taliban attacked the Iranian consulate in 1998 and killed several of its diplomats.

But we’ll never know if that might have done the trick here: the Biden administration and the British and French governments blocked it, with the US ambassador pretending that it wasn’t clear who was responsible for the bombing, even as the Pentagon openly blamed Israel for the strikes and Israeli officials all but admitted it was them.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government is now, with one hand on its heart and the other melodramatically on its brow, invoking international law and running to the same UN that at various times it’s declared antisemitic and literally Hamas.

This kind of hypocrisy — ignoring both one minute, loudly feigning shock that someone else is doing so the next — isn’t a uniquely Israeli innovation, as the behavior of Russia and the United States has long shown. But what is new is the level of utter gall Israeli officials have mustered to do this, having spent the past half a year going further in trampling over international law than even the worst rogue states of the last half-century.

Listing every single violation Israel has carried out over the last six months would take a short book, but it includes:

Israel has been backed here by what US officials lovingly call the “international community,” with state after partner state that failed to say much of anything about Israel’s consulate bombing now lining up publicly to pretend Iran’s attack has come out of nowhere and is the thing that’s really brought the region to the brink of war. Many of these statements have come paired with an insistence that Israel has the right to retaliate and calling for restraint from Iran.

If this seems a tad inconsistent, just use this simple formula: Is the state that’s doing the retaliation a US ally or partner? If yes, then whatever they do is appropriate, proportional, and well within the “rules” of the “rules-based order,” and the recipient needs to show restraint.

If not, it’s an illegal, reckless, and unjustifiable escalation, and almost anything is acceptable from the recipient in response.

This is obviously hypocritical, but it’s also something worse: ineffective at preventing wider war, since restraint and de-escalation don’t work if only one side is pressured to do either.

The most important question now is what happens next. The Iranian government has publicly said it considers the matter “concluded” — that is, that it considers it did enough to save face after Israel’s attack and is willing to walk away. Washington is clearly eager to do the same, with Joe Biden reportedly calling Netanyahu and telling him that Israel won’t get any US support for a retaliatory strike, and urging him to “take the win.” There are some signs that the stern words may have prevented an immediate counterstrike, with Israeli officials warning they would instead exact a price from Iran sometime in the future.

This would be the best outcome of a very, very dangerous situation: regional war is averted, the United States isn’t pulled into another dumb Middle East war, and no innocent civilians are killed on either side.

But it’s far from clear this will hold, even as things are currently at a state of calm. As numerous analysts have pointed out, Netanyahu and those around him have a lot to personally gain from starting a region-wide war that sucks in the United States and have actually spent much of their destruction of Gaza intermittently trying to do so, something even Biden has privately acknowledged.

That the president doesn’t want this and has committed to not backing any Israeli retaliation — and that Netanyahu reportedly replied that he understood his warning — is cold comfort. Biden has proven himself incapable and even unwilling to challenge Netanyahu or punish his intransigence throughout the war, and if Israel retaliates in turn against Iran’s retaliation, the president’s phone call will be moot: once Netanyahu succeeds in trapping his country in open warfare with Iran and its regional allies, there is next to no chance Biden will resist the overwhelming pressure to insert the US forces into the fray to defend Israel from the mess it’s gotten itself into.

The only hope at this point will be that Congress — which, Biden correctly pointed out, alone has the constitutional power to declare war, back when it was Donald Trump threatening to start an idiotic war with Iran — refuses to sanction any such thing. But Congress has long ceded its war-making responsibility to the president, and this Congress in particular has shown absolutely no appetite to check Biden on his wars, even when, as with his unconditional backing of the Gazan genocide, it has been disastrous for US interests and threatened to destroy his presidency.

The ridiculous, maddening tragedy of all this is that it could have been easily avoided at any point in the last six months. Analysts and even Biden officials have feared that Israel’s war could spark a regional catastrophe from its start, and by a combination of luck, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and restraint from Israel’s enemies, it’s been avoided. But the longer it’s gone on, the chances of something like this happening were always going to go up. And unfortunately, the president decided to simply allow it to continue for month after month after bloody month, until we’ve reached this point.

Biden could still prevent this disaster by doing as so many US presidents have done in the past and finally putting his foot down beyond just stern phone calls and private fuming, and actually cutting off material US support for the war that Israel cannot wage by itself. Yet the president has resisted this for months even as it’s made more and more political and strategic sense. It would be nice to think this might finally be the breaking point. But we’ve thought that so many times before.