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Biden counsels Netanyahu to ‘slow things down’ after Iranian attack

The Biden administration on Sunday congratulated Israel — along with itself and allies — on their “spectacular” success in fending off an unprecedented barrage of more than 300 Iranian missiles and armed drones, even as it made clear its desire for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government to declare victory and refrain from striking back.

The United States remains “committed to defending Israel,” a senior administration official said, and “what you saw last night,” as Israeli air defense — supplemented by U.S. planes and warships — shot down 99 percent of the Iranian fires, “is what that means in practice. … We are ready to do it again if we have to.”

But this official and others who spoke in official briefings, background interviews and on television throughout the day, emphasized that the United States would not participate in any offensive Israeli response against Iran.

“Our aim is to de-escalate regional tensions” and prevent the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza from becoming a wider conflagration, the senior official said.

The attack, launched from Iranian territory and by its proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, came after two tense weeks during which Iran publicly promised it would retaliate for Israel’s deadly airstrike on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria on April 1. The likelihood of an unprecedented direct Iranian attack on Israel quickly consumed the administration, overshadowing concerns about the dire situation in Gaza that had brought President Biden to warn he might have to reconsider U.S. policy toward Israel.

Israeli officials on Sunday expressed conviction that the Iranian attack could turn the tables in terms of widespread international criticism over its actions in Gaza, earning them sympathy as a victim of an Iranian government that is arguably equally unpopular. But there is little sign of progress in efforts to impose a cease-fire in Gaza, where Hamas over the weekend rejected the latest offer from Israel for at least a temporary pause in its offensive in exchange for the release of Hamas-held hostages. A Hamas statement reiterated demands for a full cease-fire and immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces.

Biden has been facing criticism from both the left — who have condemned his staunch support of Israel, and lack of sympathy for Palestinian victims in Gaza — and from the right — who have disparaged some of the harder lines he has taken more recently with Netanyahu.

In the face of a direct Iranian threat and to demonstrate what he has long called America’s “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s defense, Biden 10 days ago instructed U.S. military officials to protect it to the “maximum extent possible.” Lines of U.S.-Israel military and government communication, grown increasingly strained over the past six months of Israel’s offensive action in Gaza, were suddenly opened full-throttle.

As his national security team briefed him during last week’s state visit from Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida, Biden authorized more U.S. military deployments to the region, including an additional missile destroyer, amid rising fear that an Iranian attack could spiral the region out of control.

When it became clear the attack was imminent, the president rushed back to the White House on Saturday afternoon from his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. He spent much of the evening with senior national security aides in the Situation Room watching and being briefed on Iranian launches and subsequent shootdowns in real time, with more than 100 ballistic missiles over the sky at one point.

“You could imagine those tense moments,” said one of the officials in the room who briefed reporters Sunday.

Officials described the action in the skies of the Middle East as a ballet of highly coordinated maneuvers requiring deconfliction of antimissile fires from Israel, U.S. destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean and a U.S.-manned Patriot missile defense battery in Iraq, while Israeli and U.S. aircraft shot down explosive drones. Most of the interceptions, Israeli and U.S. officials said, were before the missiles had reached Israeli airspace.

What is considered an offensive strike can be elastic within the Pentagon, allowing the Biden administration to take preemptive military action but describe it as defensive in nature. For instance, U.S. forces targeted Houthi missile sites over the past several months before they could launch missiles against shipping in the Red Sea, saying the operation was meant to protect potential targets from attack.

At around 9 p.m., Biden spoke with Netanyahu, who was with his own war cabinet in Israel’s war room monitoring the situation. “It was shortly after we believed the attack was largely defeated,” said the senior administration official. “Both leaders had just gone through ten days of preparations” and seeing the results, “we were feeling pretty good about where we were.”

U.S. officials characterized the scope of the Iranian attack as at the “high end” of what they had anticipated, and intended “to cause significant damage and death.” But very few Iranian weapons had reached the ground in Israel, causing only minor destruction.

After congratulating Netanyahu, Biden noted that their success had created “space and flexibility for decisions on next steps.” He advised Israel to “slow things down and think through” how to respond.

“It was a very useful call just to kind of talk through where we are,” the senior official said. “Nobody wants to run up the escalation ladder here.” While any response “is a calculation the Israelis have to make … we think that in the overall exchange the Israelis came out clearly very much on top and demonstrated their ability to defend their country in coordination” with the United States and with participation from Britain, France, Jordan and others. “The big question is not only what, but whether Israel chooses” to respond, the official said. “The president and the prime minister really were thinking through strategically where we are.”

This official and others emphasized that the United States would not be part of any Israeli offensive attack against Iran, and wanted to avoid regional escalation. Asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether Biden essentially told Netanyahu to “take the win,” John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council said, “I think the president was, again, very clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu about the success that they enjoyed last night and the impact that that success ought to have.”

While messages were exchanged indirectly between the United States and Iran through the government of Switzerland as the crisis built over the last 10 days, officials denied reports that the Iranians had given a 72-hour warning to Washington or countries in the region that the attack was about to start. “That is absolutely not true,” the senior administration official said. “They did not give a notification, nor did they give any sense of these are the targets. … They were clearly intending to destroy targets. … They just didn’t succeed.”

Public saber-rattling from Iran that it would respond to the Israeli attack on its personnel in Damascus “gave us time to prepare,” and Iran also “needed time to prepare to do this,” the official said.

At one point during Saturday evening, “we received a message from the Iranians … through the Swiss, basically suggesting that they were finished. But it was still an ongoing attack.”

Kirby was also asked whether Biden has ruled out the United States launching a direct attack on Iran. “The president has made it clear: We do not seek a war with Iran,” he said. “We don’t seek a wider war in the region.”

On Sunday morning, Biden met again with his senior defense and diplomatic officials in the Situation Room, reviewing the results that they deemed Israel’s “spectacular defeat” of the attack.

Biden also met virtually with the Group of Seven, with some discussions about additional sanctions on Iran. He also called Jordanian King Abdullah II, who has been a crucial ally amid the escalating tensions in the region.

“We, the Leaders of the G7, unequivocally condemn in the strongest terms Iran’s direct and unprecedented attack against Israel. Iran fired hundreds of drones and missiles towards Israel,” the group said in a statement on Sunday afternoon. “Israel, with the help of its partners, defeated the attack.”

Some Republicans, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, criticized Biden for not being more forceful with Iran, or in backing any Israeli response.

“What I don’t understand is why Joe Biden and the administration would leak to the media the contents of a conversation in which he tells Netanyahu he doesn’t think [Israel] should respond at all,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on CNN. “It is the continuing part of this public game that they are playing, which frankly encourages Iran and Hezbollah, which we haven’t even talked about, and the Houthis, and all these other elements, that are targeting Israel.”

Later on Sunday, Biden spoke with top House and Senate leaders from both parties, urging the House to pass a national security spending bill as soon as possible. The Senate in February passed a $95 billion package that included funding for Israel, as well as Ukraine and Taiwan, but a fractious House GOP hasn’t taken it up. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said Republicans would “try again this week” to pass some sort of aid package for Israel, but what that package looks like — and whether it includes funding for Ukraine — is likely to be the subject of intense debate.

Criticism of what Rubio and others describe as Biden’s failure to confront Iran began with the administration’s unsuccessful attempts to reinstate a nuclear deal with Tehran that President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. The agreement, which also included Russia, China, Britain France and Germany, along with the European Union, held Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon in check in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Six years later, the restraints have fallen away, one by one, leaving Iran closer to nuclear weapons capability than at any time in the country’s history. With those advances, the risk of an escalation of conflict between Iran and nuclear-armed Israel has taken on a new level of threat.

At the United Nations, where the Security Council on Sunday afternoon held the latest of dozens of meetings on the regional crisis — most of them focused on the Israel-Hamas war — some of the United States’ harshest critics, including Russia and China, placed much of the blame for this weekend’s confrontation on U.S. failure to condemn Israel’s April 1 attack in Iran in Damascus.

Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Amir Saeid Iravani, told the council Tehran does not seek escalation and “has no intention of engaging in conflict with the U.S.” despite the U.S. role in intercepting Iranian drones and missiles. But Iran would not hesitate to act in self-defense in response to further “military provocation” from Israel, and would respond “proportionately” if the United States initiates military operations against Iran or its security and interests, Iravani said.

Michael Birnbaum, Alex Horton, Dan Lamothe, Daniel Wu and Praveena Somasundaram contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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