Biden Seeks to Head Off Escalation After Israel’s Successful Defense


President Biden and his team, hoping to avoid further escalation leading to a wider war in the Middle East, are advising Israel that its successful defense against Iranian airstrikes constituted a major strategic victory that might not require another round of retaliation, U.S. officials said on Sunday.

The interception of nearly all of the more than 300 drones and missiles fired against Israel on Saturday night demonstrated that Israel had come out ahead in its confrontation with Iran and proved to enemies its ability to protect itself along with its American allies, meaning it did not necessarily need to fire back, the officials said.

Whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his government will agree to leave it at that was not yet clear as the country’s war cabinet met for several hours on Sunday to make decisions about its next steps.

The leaders of the Group of 7 major industrial democracies echoed Mr. Biden’s message on Sunday morning, condemning Iran for the attack and warning that it could provoke what they called an “uncontrollable regional escalation” in the Middle East.

“This must be avoided,” the joint statement said. “We will continue to work to stabilize the situation and avoid further escalation.”

Although damage from the attack was relatively light, the scope of the strikes went well beyond the small-bore tit-for-tat shadow war between Iran and Israel in recent years, crossing a red line with the firing of weapons from Iranian territory into Israeli territory. Had defenses not held, scores or hundreds could have been killed.

American officials said it was clear to them that wide-scale death was Iran’s intent, despite the fact that its leadership telegraphed the attack well in advance, publicly and privately. Officials said that even as the attack was underway, Iran’s government sent word through Swiss intermediaries that it considered the matter closed.

“I mean, look at the size and the scale, the scope of what they fired into Israel from Iran proper: more than 300 missiles and drones,” John F. Kirby, the national security spokesman at the White House, said on Sunday on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” “They wanted to cause damage — no question about that. But they were utterly unsuccessful in doing so.”

Emotions were running high among Israeli officials during phone calls with American partners late into the night, and the pressure to fire back was consequently strong. The U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive discussions, stressed that the decision about whether and how to respond was ultimately up to Israel.

Israeli jets early on Sunday hit structures in Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah after the Iranian-backed militia sent two explosive drones into Israel, but it was not clear how related that was to the Iranian airstrike.

Mr. Biden spoke with Mr. Netanyahu on Saturday after the Iranian attack and repeated his “ironclad commitment” to Israel’s security. Mr. Biden urged restraint, telling Mr. Netanyahu that it was time to “think carefully and strategically” about the risks of escalation if the Israelis respond in kind with military force, according to one senior administration official.

In a statement released after the call, Mr. Biden hinted publicly at a desire for actions that would not continue a cycle of retribution.

“I told him that Israel demonstrated a remarkable capacity to defend against and defeat even unprecedented attacks — sending a clear message to its foes that they cannot effectively threaten the security of Israel,” Mr. Biden said.

“Taken together, @JoeBiden’s message is designed to gently persuade #Israel not to pursue further escalation,” Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote on social media.

That is likely to generate criticism of Mr. Biden from conservatives, some of whom quickly went public urging a powerful military reprisal against Iran — not only by Israel, but by the United States, as well. “We must move quickly and launch aggressive retaliatory strikes on Iran,” Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, said in a statement posted online.

Speaker Mike Johnson partly blamed the Biden administration for the Iran strike because of what he called its “undermining of Israel and appeasement of Iran.” He did not mention that he himself has so far failed to permit a floor vote on bipartisan legislation passed by the Senate providing security aid to Israel and Ukraine. Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House Republican leader, said that “in light of Iran’s unjustified attack on Israel,” the House this week would consider aid to Israel, but he gave no details. Mr. Johnson also said on Sunday that the House would take up Israel aid in the coming days.

The eruption between Israel and Iran came at a time of great tension between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu. In a call only 10 days ago, the president threatened to rethink his support for Israel’s war in Gaza if Mr. Netanyahu did not do more to alleviate civilian suffering in the enclave, leveraging American backing for the first time since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led terrorist attack on Israel.

At the same time the two leaders clashed, Israel had just executed an airstrike against the Iranian Embassy complex in Damascus, Syria, killing seven Iranian officers involved in covert operations in a move that threatened the escalation that Mr. Biden had long feared. Even so, the president made clear that his support for Israel’s security was still unwavering and warned Iran not to respond.

American and Israeli officials spent the past few days coordinating military operations in case Iran did act, and Mr. Biden ordered aircraft and ballistic missile defense destroyers to the region. Even as the attack began, Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, and the Israeli defense attaché were meeting with officials at the White House to coordinate the response to the attack.

Administration officials were elated at the results as U.S. and Israeli forces knocked down nearly everything thrown at Israel, including more than 100 ballistic missiles, a feat that one official said might be unmatched in military history. Jordan intercepted projectiles crossing its airspace, saying it was guarding its own security.

American officials said U.S. fighter jets shot down more than 70 exploding drones in the attack, while two Navy warships in the eastern Mediterranean destroyed four to six ballistic missiles and an Army Patriot battery in Iraq knocked down at least one missile that passed overhead. The number of drones and missiles that Iran launched — more than 300 — was on the high end of what U.S. analysts had expected, one official said.

On Sunday morning, Mr. Biden spoke with King Abdullah II of Jordan about the attack and called two members of the 494th and 335th fighter squadrons to praise them for the successful mission.

Even though Iran did little tangible damage, it signaled after the strikes that it was ready to stand down — and clearly hoped to avoid direct engagement with the United States. “The matter can be deemed concluded,” the Iranian mission to the United Nations said in a statement. “However, should the Israeli regime make another mistake, Iran’s response will be considerably more severe. It is a conflict between Iran and the rogue Israeli regime, from which the U.S. MUST STAY AWAY!”

The situation was reminiscent of January 2020, when President Donald J. Trump ordered an airstrike in Iraq to kill Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Iran retaliated by firing missiles at well-defended U.S. bases in Iraq with relatively little damage, though about 100 U.S. military personnel were wounded. It then sent a private message saying it was done. Mr. Trump chose not to retaliate, and fears of a cycle of escalation faded.

In the days leading up to the attack on Saturday, Mr. Netanyahu warned Tehran not to act, saying, “Whoever hurts us, we hurt them.” But because Israel was not badly hurt, Mr. Netanyahu may have some room to declare victory and move on. Israeli officials were not clear on their intentions.

“The campaign is not over yet — we must remain alert and attentive to the instructions published by the I.D.F. and Homefront Command,” said Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “We must be prepared for every scenario. Having said this, we have thwarted the most significant wave” of the attack, “and we did so successfully.”

The American argument was that because Israel also successfully took out those senior Iranian officers in Damascus two weeks ago without paying a significant price, another round of military action could be deemed unnecessary.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.


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