The decades-long conflict between Iran and Israel crossed a new threshold on April 13 when Iran, for the first time, launched a direct attack against Israel involving over 300 missiles and drones. This unprecedented attack was made in response to a series of targeted strikes allegedly made by Israel against Iranian officials and sites in Syria, the most recent being an April 1 air strike on an Iranian consular building in Damascus that killed seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers, two of which were high-ranking generals. A war that had long been waged in the shadows via covert operations, cyberattacks, and proxies was now being fought in the open. The damage from Iran’s attacks was thankfully minimal due to the effectiveness of Israel’s air defenses coupled with defense coordination with partners such as the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Jordan. Nonetheless, the attack escalated regional tensions and raised fears that Israel would retaliate proportionately to impose costs on Iran and deter the Islamic Republic from launching similar attacks in the future.

Israel’s military response, as many regional experts noted, was uncharacteristically muted and in no way mirrored the magnitude of Iran’s attacks. Damage and casualties were negligible and limited to a single air base near Isfahan, and the effect of the attack was more symbolic and psychological than real. It seemed Israel was trying to reestablish deterrence by signaling that it has the capabilities to penetrate Iranian airspace and attack its bases and installations. Such restraint is somewhat puzzling for a country like Israel that has traditionally maintained a reputation for immediately punishing actors who threaten its security and for seizing the initiative and going on the offensive. How do we explain Israel’s apparent risk aversion toward Iran, especially when we contrast it to the extraordinary risks it has been willing to run in past conflicts, including the present one in Gaza?

To the casual observer, a limited military response signals weakness rather than strength, but such a course of action may, as Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz astutely noted, be of critical importance for prevailing in the primary theater. Restraint toward Iran was not shown simply because of domestic or international pressure, though it may have mattered, but rather because Israel’s leaders believed it better suited their country’s larger national interests to focus on fighting Hamas rather than beginning a new war against Iran and its other proxies.

Preserving the Coalition Against Iran Amid International Pressure

Perhaps the most obvious and popular explanation as to why Israel exercised restraint in responding to Iran has to do with widespread international pressure. The public statements made by US and European officials reveal that they did not support offensive operations against Iran and opposed any military actions that would provoke Iran and drag the region into war. Their cooperation in intercepting Iranian drones and missiles helped protect Israel against Tehran’s earlier attacks but was not something guaranteed to recur if a wider conflict broke out.

At first glance, this explanation seems quite persuasive and would fit not only Israel’s limited reaction to Iran’s recent attacks but also its past decision to not retaliate against Iraq for its Scud missile attacks in 1991. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political mentor, former Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir, was asked to show remarkable restraint during the Gulf War when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussien launched almost forty Scud missiles against Israel. Saddam sought to fracture the multinational coalition that President George H. W. Bush adroitly assembled to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and thought such attacks would provoke Israeli retaliation and turn Arab states such as Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia against the US-led coalition. To preserve the alliance, the United States asked Israel to refrain from responding to Iraq’s unprovoked attacks, and, as a result, its leaders delayed making any military decisions. Israel’s seeming passivity at the time is frequently cited as an example of how American pressure can be successfully leveraged to change Israeli policy. This, however, is the wrong lesson to take away and in fact fits neither the past nor the present.

In deciding how to respond to Iraq’s Scud attacks and more recently, to Iran’s missile and drone attacks, Israeli leaders acted in ways that fit their country’s larger geopolitical interests. During the Gulf War, restraint made strategic sense as the United States provided Israel with Patriot missile defense systems and, more importantly, agreed to destroy the Scud missile sites in western Iraq. Israel felt sufficiently assured that the missile threat would be effectively neutralized and Saddam, in effect, would be militarily defeated.

After Iran’s recent attacks against Israel, one would expect an Israeli counterstrike—the administration of President Joe Biden appeared to believe it was likely, given how it went out of its way to immediately defuse the situation and de-escalate regional tensions. Here too Israel exercised restraint but did so in this case because its leaders sought to avoid opening new theaters at a time when they wanted to concentrate on fighting Hamas in Gaza. International pressure undoubtedly influenced Israeli officials’ calculations but, as suggested above, national interests were also driving their response.

The argument that international pressure restrains Israel’s leaders is also unconvincing if observers consider the way Israel has made its own decisions on how to prosecute the war in Gaza, downplaying international criticisms over the significant number of civilian casualties and over its proposed military operations in Rafah. Moreover, its leaders have for decades defied regional and international demands to cease the expansion and enlargement of settlements in the West Bank. Finally, with some notable exceptions, they have delayed addressing the fundamental issues at the heart of the Palestinian question and have focused largely on managing rather than solving it.

But if international pressure cannot fully explain what happened, then what factors explain why Netanyahu, known for favoring a showdown with Iran, showed considerable restraint? The crisis presented a pretext for the prime minister to begin a preventive war against Iran to destroy at least some of its nuclear infrastructure, but this did not happen. Applying Clausewitz’s insight, it appears that Netanyahu and the other voting members of the three-person war cabinet—Defense Minister and fellow Likud member Yoav Gallant and opposition leader and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz—were guided by tactical and operational considerations.

The Dangers of Opening a New Theater Amid the War in Gaza

Israeli decision-makers fear that in the event of a broader war with Iran, Tehran would likely rely on its capabilities and those of its vast network of proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen to open multiple fronts against Israel. The Israel Defense Forces, of course, are one of the most capable and competent armed forces in the region, but fighting against Iran would begin a serious interstate war at a time when it is already stretched thin with a large-scale campaign in Gaza, along with operations in the West Bank and near the Lebanese border.

Members of the war cabinet understood how retaliating proportionately against Iran might draw the region into a wider war and divert Israel’s attention and economic and military resources from its primary theater in Gaza. Israel has not yet finished its war against Hamas and is nowhere near close to wrapping up its ground operations in Gaza after almost seven months of war. Netanyahu has neither set a timetable to achieve his political objectives nor effectively presented a realistic postwar plan for Gaza.

Moreover, while parts of the West Bank are under the limited control of the moderate Palestinian Authority, Israeli forces are waging regular military operations to root out Hamas militants. The situation is becoming more volatile not just because of these repeated incursions but because of the mounting violence between armed Jewish settlers and Palestinians. Additionally, the unprecedented speed with which Israel’s present government has recently declared more territory in the West Bank as Israeli state land signals that it intends to expand and accelerate settlement activity, adding fuel to the fire. If these dynamics continue unabated, the situation there might explode and give rise to another intifada as Palestinians grow even more disillusioned with their moderate leadership, more enraged over the death and destruction in Gaza, and more angry over the actions taken either by settlers or by the Israeli government itself.

A war with Iran would not just escalate regional tensions but also, dangerously, open multiple new fronts at a time when Israel has not yet ended the war against Hamas and is dealing with a very volatile situation in the West Bank. In his famous treatise On War, Clausewitz advised leaders to open a new theater only “when secondary operations look exceptionally rewarding” and “without risking too much in the principal theater.” With his extensive experience as a planner and practitioner of secondary operations, Clausewitz recommended to fellow strategists to always consider the war’s endgame and design their actions based on these considerations. Secondary operations should support the successful achievement of war’s political objectives—and not distract and divert forces or, even worse, expand or distort the conflict and thus hinder the achievement of peace.

Attacking Iran and risking a broad Iranian-Israeli conflagration across the Middle East would obviously violate this salient advice. It would divert Israel’s attention and resources away from Hamas, which, though weakened, continues to operate in Gaza. Gantz said as much a day after Iran’s missile and drone attacks, stating on April 14 that “we will build a regional coalition and exact a price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us,” but then added a caveat that “even today, we must remember that we have not yet completed our tasks—primarily the return of the hostages and the removal of the threat against the residents of the north and south.” Aryeh Deri, head of the ultraorthodox Shas Party and one of the three nonvoting members of the war cabinet, made similar remarks. In an interview with his party newspaper, Haderech, Deri advised Israel’s war cabinet to focus on the war in Gaza, stating that “the right thing is to focus on that and not open more fronts, not to look for ways to escalate the situation . . . . Our enemies are looking for that, hoping for, as I said, us to get to a situation of the fronts combining, and we don’t need to be dragged to that place.” This line of cautious thinking was also reflected in the public statements made by influential Israeli officials outside the war cabinet.

A war with Iran is not, as Gantz and Deri point out, particularly helpful in the fight against Hamas. Quite the opposite. By opening multiple theaters, Israel would inadvertently benefit and support Hamas’s original designs for disrupting the regional balance and bringing chaos and disorder to the Middle East. As the weaker side, drawing either nonstate or state actors into the conflict constitutes Hamas’s only chance to militarily pressure Israel to halt, even if only temporarily, its operations in Gaza, including its threatened Rafah offensive. Forced to deal with other more dangerous threats, the Israel Defense Forces would have no choice but to respond to them and, in doing so, would sacrifice achieving their political and military objectives in Gaza.

Israel’s restraint toward Iran is by no means an aberration because its leaders have historically behaved very much like traditional Clausewitzians. Some of the top scholars who have written about Clausewitz and about other topics in the field of military theory, like Azar Gat and the late Jehuda Wallach, have taught at Israel’s leading universities. But education aside, Israel’s geopolitical situation—it is a relatively small country in a tough neighborhood—has led its political and military leadership to ponder hard ways to maximize their advantages and apply military power deliberately. These are all conditions that fit with Clausewitz’s analysis of the use of military power for political aims.

The past also offers plenty of clues on how Clausewitzian thought and Israeli decision-making coincide. The list of wars that Israel has fought suggests that its leaders have, whenever possible, sought to avoid waging prolonged, multifront wars, cognizant of the dangerous consequences of doing so. Such conflicts would harm their economy and heavily burden their small population, a good percentage of whom serve in the reserves. Long conflicts also erode domestic support, and this is especially harmful in democracies like Israel where public support is essential for maintaining morale, continuing the war effort, and surviving politically.

The historical record shows that this is indeed the case. In the Second Arab-Israeli War, or the Suez War of 1956, Israel colluded with Britain and France to not only destroy Egypt’s armed forces but exert pressure to topple Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. The war was fought on Israel’s southern front and mainly in the Sinai Peninsula where the Israel Defense Forces quickly advanced southward toward the Suez Canal.

Almost a decade later, as the region braced for war in May 1967, Israel took a decisive step to prevent a disadvantageous multifront war against the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Instead of waiting to absorb a devastating potential first strike, Israel launched a preemptive attack against Egypt, the most powerful Arab country. In the first hours of the war, Israeli airpower destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground, as well as its airstrips, and effectively took Egypt out of the war before turning its attention toward Syria and Jordan. The way the June 1967 war was fought ensured that Israel retained a decisive advantage, directing its attention from one theater to another and maintaining air superiority throughout the entire six-day conflict.

And finally, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization occurred only after it concluded a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, foreclosing a wider regional war or the threat of one between Israel and Egypt or between Israel and other Arab states such as Syria who were incapable of fighting Israel alone.

The 1948–49 War of independence and the 1973 October War are exceptions; both featured the type of costly, multifront wars that Israel vehemently opposes but was unfortunately forced to fight by its neighbors. But whenever Israel itself initiated hostilities, it either fought single-front wars or acted preemptively to fight short wars. At first glance then, Israel’s restraint against Iran may seem unusual, but it actually fits a historical pattern and proves that Clausewitz’s logic continues to influence its security doctrine and the views of its leading political and military officials.

What’s Next: Israel’s Strategic Response to Iran’s Attacks

Part of Hamas’s objective was undoubtedly to use its October 7 terrorist attacks to generate regional tensions, disrupt normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations, and more importantly, draw West Bank Palestinians, Iran’s proxies, and perhaps even Iran itself into a broader conflict with Israel. Netanyahu and those advising him rightfully avoided falling into this trap and overreacting in a way that would have politically and militarily been in Hamas’s interests. And so, they exercised restraint toward Iran not just because of international pressure but because it better suited their larger national objectives.

This comports with the fundamental principle of realism that sovereign states seek to ensure their own security and, in the final analysis, make their own decisions over how to protect themselves from outside threats. Given that the structure of the international system, as realists note, is “anarchic,” states have no choice but to rely on themselves for their survival. The realities of international relations dictate that states could behave no other way; they cannot allow other countries’ concerns to supersede their national interests. Israel is no different. Its restraint toward Iran’s drone and missile attack made strategic sense and was driven in part by its own decision to avoid opening new theaters amid its ongoing war against Hamas.

In the future, Israeli decisionmakers’ ability to find a sustainable peace in the region will ultimately depend on whether they continue to exercise such sound judgment going forward, especially in their monthslong war in Gaza. If Israel’s goal is to destroy Hamas, then, as Clausewitz suggests, military means need to be prudently subjugated to political objectives. Limiting military operations to address the larger Palestinian question provides a means to end the conflict in Gaza and defuse escalating tensions in the West Bank for the long term. This would help Israel not only erode Hamas’s recruitment and support but achieve a more enduring political and ideological victory against one of Iran’s proxies.

Shahin Berenji is an assistant professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the US Naval War College. He studies foreign policy decision-making and diplomacy and has a specialization in the Cold War and regional expertise in the Middle East. His research has been published in such academic journals as International Security and Security Studies and his commentary has been featured in such outlets as the Modern War Institute, the National Interest, and E-International Relations.

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger is an assistant professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the US Naval War College. She is the author of Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman behind the Making of On War. Her research focuses on classical military thought and its application to current strategic dilemmas.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Departments of the Army or Navy, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Chuck Kennedy, US Department of State