The Coming Middle East Conflagration

Israel is bracing itself for war with Iranian proxies, as Tehran escalates its provocations. But what will the United States do if conflict comes?

A Hezbollah parade, with a mock rocket launcher, in 2016
Ali Hashisho / Reuters

This article was updated on Monday, November 4, at 7:35 pm.

The senior ministers of the Israeli government met twice last week to discuss the possibility of open war with Iran. They were mindful of the Iranian plan for a drone attack from Syria in August, aborted at the last minute by an Israeli air strike, as well as Iran’s need to deflect attention from the mass protests against Hezbollah’s rule in Lebanon. The ministers also reviewed the recent attack by Iranian drones and cruise missiles on two Saudi oil installations, reportedly concluding that a similar assault could be mounted against Israel from Iraq.

The Israel Defense Forces, meanwhile, announced the adoption of an emergency plan, code-named Momentum, to significantly expand Israel’s missile defense capacity, its ability to gather intelligence on embedded enemy targets, and its soldiers’ preparation for urban warfare. Israeli troops, especially in the north, have been placed on war footing. Israel is girding for the worst and acting on the assumption that fighting could break out at any time.

And it’s not hard to imagine how it might arrive. The conflagration, like so many in the Middle East, could be ignited by a single spark. Israeli fighter jets have already conducted hundreds of bombing raids against Iranian targets in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Preferring to deter rather than embarrass Tehran, Israel rarely comments on such actions. But perhaps Israel miscalculates, hitting a particularly sensitive target; or perhaps politicians cannot resist taking credit. The result could be a counterstrike by Iran, using cruise missiles that penetrate Israel’s air defenses and smash into targets like the Kiryah, Tel Aviv’s equivalent of the Pentagon. Israel would retaliate massively against Hezbollah’s headquarters in Beirut as well as dozens of its emplacements along the Lebanese border. And then, after a day of large-scale exchanges, the real war would begin.

Rockets, many carrying tons of TNT, would rain on Israel; drones armed with payloads would crash into crucial facilities, military and civilian. During the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, the rate of such fire reached between 200 and 300 projectiles a day. Today, it might reach as high as 4,000. The majority of the weapons in Hezbollah’s arsenal are standoff missiles with fixed trajectories that can be tracked and intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system. But Iron Dome is 90 percent effective on average, meaning that for every 100 rockets, 10 get through, and the seven operational batteries are incapable of covering the entire country. All of Israel, from Metulla in the north to the southern port city of Eilat, would be in range of enemy fire.

But precision-guided missiles, growing numbers of which are in Iranian arsenals, pose a far deadlier threat. Directed by joysticks, many can change destinations mid-flight. The David’s Sling system, developed in conjunction with the United States, can stop them—in theory, because it has never been tested in combat. And each of its interceptors costs $1 million. Even if it is not physically razed, Israel can be bled economically.

First, though, it would be paralyzed. If rockets fall near Ben-Gurion Airport, as during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza, it will close to international traffic. Israel’s ports, through which a major portion of its food and essential supplies are imported, may also shut down, and its electrical grids could be severed. Iran has honed its hacking tools in recent years and Israel, though a world leader in cyberdefense, cannot entirely protect its vital utilities. Millions of Israelis would huddle in bomb shelters. Hundreds of thousands would be evacuated from border areas that terrorists are trying to infiltrate. The restaurants and hotels would empty, along with the offices of the high-tech companies of the start-up nation. The hospitals, many of them resorting to underground facilities, would quickly be overwhelmed, even before the skies darken with the toxic fumes of blazing chemical factories and oil refineries.

Israel would, of course, respond. Its planes and artillery would return fire, and the IDF would mobilize. More than twice the size of the French and British armies combined—at least on paper—the IDF can call up, equip, and deploy tens of thousands of seasoned reservists in less than 24 hours. But where would it send them? Most of the rockets would be launched from southern Lebanon, where the launchers are embedded in some 200 villages. Others would be fired from Gaza, where Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both backed by Iran, have at least 10,000 rockets. But longer-range missiles, including the deadly Shahab-3, would reach Israel from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran itself. This presents a daunting challenge to the Israeli Air Force, which does not possess strategic bombers capable of reaching Iran and must grapple with the advanced Russian anti-aircraft weapons situated in Syria. Israeli ground troops would be forced to move into Lebanon and Gaza, house-to-house, while special forces would be dispatched deep within Syria and Iraq. Israel’s own conventional missiles could devastate Iranian targets.

But even if these countermeasures could succeed in curtailing much of the missile fire, they would also inflict many thousands of civilian casualties. This is precisely what Iran wants, its proxies preventing the flight of residents from combat areas in order to accuse Israel of committing war crimes. West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, meanwhile, would likely stage violent protests that Israel would put down harshly, setting the stage for the Security Council to condemn Israel for employing indiscriminate and disproportional force and for the United Nations Human Rights Council to gather evidence for the International Criminal Court. What Iran and its allies cannot accomplish on the battlefield, they can achieve through boycotts, isolating and strangling Israel.

Does all this seem a little far-fetched? Not to the senior Israeli government ministers who have been contemplating precisely these sorts of scenarios. And over all of them looms a pressing question: How will the United States respond?

The question is paramount for multiple reasons, beginning with America’s role in precipitating the potential for conflict. Whether inadvertently, by diminishing its principal Sunni enemies—Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Taliban, and the Islamic State—or purposefully, by signing the nuclear deal, the United States has empowered Iran. While quick to oust Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi—both Sunni—President Barack Obama refused to intercede against Iran’s Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad. President Donald Trump failed to respond forcefully to the Iranian attacks on Saudi Arabia and on international shipping in the Gulf, or even for the downing of a U.S. Navy drone last June. Rather than a departure from long-standing policy, the hasty withdrawal of American troops from Syria appears to many in the Middle East as yet another American move that will strengthen Tehran. Few in the region will be surprised if the American president eases sanctions and negotiates with his Iranian counterpart.

But along with turning a blind eye to Iranian aggression, the United States has also provoked it. Iran has exploited the profits and legitimacy of the nuclear deal to dominate great swaths of the Middle East and surround Israel with missiles. With the expiration of the treaty’s sunset clauses, Iran could then break out, making hundreds of nuclear weapons while deterring Israeli preemption.

But if that was the Iranian hope, its aspirations were destroyed overnight by President Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal and reimpose sanctions. Faced with a collapsing economy, the regime had two painful options: Either enter into talks with Trump under conditions the Iranians find humiliating, or else initiate hostilities—first in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and if that fails, against Israel. Turning to action, the regime must hope, will prove to the United States that without sanctions relief and a renewed nuclear treaty, Iran can plunge the entire region into chaos.

Aware of these dangers, Israeli leaders nevertheless supported the undoing of a deal that they believed paved Iran’s path to hegemony and a nuclear arsenal. They fully supported the sanctions, even though they risk triggering a war. Better for it to face that risk now, they reasoned, than in five years, after Iran has completed its Middle East conquests, encircled Israel, and acquired nuclear bombs. Better for conflict to occur during the current administration, which can be counted on to provide Israel with the three sources of American assistance it traditionally receives in wartime.

The first is ammunition. Beginning with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and continuing through two Lebanon wars and three major clashes with Gaza, Israel has run low on crucial munitions. In each case, the United States agreed to resupply the IDF either by airlift or from its pre-positioned stores inside Israel. Only once, during the 2014 Protective Edge operation, did the Obama administration delay shipments of arms—in that case, Hellfire missiles—to express its displeasure over rising Palestinian casualties.

The second kind of backing is legal. Because the UN reliably votes to condemn Israel, the United States has rallied likeminded states to oppose or at least soften one-sided resolutions and, in the Security Council, cast its veto. The United States has also acted to shield Israel from UN “fact-finding” missions that invariably denounce it, and from sanctions imposed by international courts. When the Goldstone Report, filed after the 2009 Cast Lead operation in Gaza, accused Israel of crimes against humanity, both the Obama White House and the Democratic majority in Congress came to Israel’s defense.

Finally, the United States has supported Israel on the day after the fighting, in negotiating cease-fires, troop withdrawals, and prisoner exchanges, and establishing frameworks for peace. The tradition began after the 1967 Six-Day War, with the U.S.-brokered Security Council Resolution 242, and continued through the shuttle diplomacy of Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger in 1973–74 and Condoleezza Rice in 2006. Only after the 2014 fighting did Israel reject America’s offer of mediation, due to its government’s lack of faith in Secretary John Kerry.

Such distrust is absent from Israel’s relations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and there is little doubt of this administration’s willingness to supply the three traditional types of assistance. But what if Israel needs more than that? What if there were a situation in which the survival of the Jewish state were threatened? Would the United States intervene?

The answer is yes—to a degree. Every two years, U.S. and Israeli forces hold joint exercises called Juniper Cobra to strengthen Israel’s air defenses. After participating as an IDF reservist in the first Juniper Cobra, in 1990, I worked with my American counterparts to deploy Patriot missile batteries in Israel during the Gulf War. Since then, the cooperation has significantly expanded, including the stationing of an American-manned X-band Radar system in Israel and the temporary deployment of the THAAD system, employing some of America’s most advanced antiballistic technology. Though the details remain top secret, the United States is clearly committed to helping protect Israel’s skies. Whether American troops would go on the offensive on Israel’s behalf, striking Iranian bases, remains uncertain.

That ambiguity is only deepening in an election year in which the incumbent and his opponents are campaigning to end old Middle Eastern wars, not get bogged down in new ones. Polls taken after the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria showed a lack of bipartisan support for even a small-scale American military involvement in the region. Yet administration officials have repeatedly assured me that Israel is not Syria or Saudi Arabia, and that Israel can count on massive U.S. support if needed.

I continue to believe that is true. I recall President Obama’s comment to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office six years ago this week, on the last day of my service as Israeli ambassador. “The United States will always come to Israel’s aid in the event of a war,” he said, “because that is what the American people expect.” But I also remember that, back in 1973, Egypt and Syria saw a president preoccupied with an impeachment procedure, and concluded that Israel was vulnerable. In the subsequent war, Israel prevailed—but at an excruciating price. The next war could prove even costlier.