US suggests Israel need not retaliate against Iran

WASHINGTON — Top officials in Washington are attempting to avoid a widening war in the Middle East after Iran launched an unprecedented attack on Israel with explosive drones and missiles.

“There need to be some consequences here,” said a senior U.S. official briefing reporters Sunday afternoon on the condition of not being named.

But U.S. President Joe Biden, in his latest conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “made very clear to the prime minister last night that we do have to think carefully and strategically about risks of escalation,” especially in view of the attack causing only light damage and no significant casualties, the official said.

Israeli officials insist there will be a response, but the country’s war Cabinet appears divided on how and when.

If Israel retaliates, it would be doing it alone.

“We would not envision ourselves participating in such a thing,” replied the senior administration official when asked whether the United States would participate in any military response to the Iranian attack.

It was an “incredible military achievement” by Israel, the United States and other partners in repelling “more than 300 drones and missiles” launched by Iran, according to White House national security spokesperson John Kirby.

US Central Command says its forces, supported by US European Command destroyers, on Saturday and on Sunday morning “successfully engaged and destroyed more than 80 one-way attack uncrewed aerial vehicles (OWA UAV) and at least six ballistic missiles intended to strike Israel from Iran and Yemen. This includes a ballistic missile on its launcher vehicle and seven UAVs destroyed on the ground in Iranian-backed Houthi controlled areas of Yemen prior to their launch.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in a statement late Saturday, said the explosive aircraft and missiles were launched from the territories of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

“We call on Iran to immediately halt any further attacks, including from its proxy forces, and to deescalate tensions,” Austin said. “We do not seek conflict with Iran, but we will not hesitate to act to protect our forces and support the defense of Israel.”

He spoke by phone Sunday for the third time during the weekend with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Biden convened a hastily arranged video conference Sunday of leaders of the Group of Seven nations to coordinate a united diplomatic response to the Iranian attack.

“With its actions, Iran has further stepped toward the destabilization of the region and risks provoking an uncontrollable regional escalation. This must be avoided,” the G7 leaders said in a group statement issued after their meeting. “We will continue to work to stabilize the situation and avoid further escalation. In this spirit, we demand that Iran and its proxies cease their attacks, and we stand ready to take further measures now and in response to further destabilizing initiatives.”

Biden spoke by phone with Netanyahu on Saturday evening to “reaffirm America’s ironclad commitment to the security of Israel.”

Biden told Netanyahu, according to media reports, that since the Iranian attack caused only minimal casualties and damage, Israel should not retaliate against Iran.

Both Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been calling leaders in the region to make it clear that while Washington does not seek a direct military confrontation with Tehran, the United States will not hesitate to continue to defend Israel.

Biden had rushed back to Washington from a visit to Delaware earlier Saturday and convened a meeting in the White House Situation Room with key officials of his Cabinet as Iran launched the unprecedented attack after vowing to retaliate over an April 1 suspected Israeli airstrike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the strike.

The U.S. military began moving extra troops and equipment to sites in the Middle East, defense officials confirmed Friday. It has about 40,000 troops in the region.

The U.S. Navy moved two guided-missile destroyers capable of intercepting drones and incoming missiles closer to Israel in anticipation of the Iranian attack, The Wall Street Journal reported.

U.S. Navy Red Sea forces have previously intercepted long-range missiles launched toward Israel from Yemen by the Iranian-allied Houthi forces.

The Biden administration’s response to the Iranian attack will be closely watched by his political opponents, coming less than seven months before a general election rematch between the Democratic Party incumbent and his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.

Trump, speaking Saturday at a rally in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, claimed the attack “would not have happened if we were in office.” He did not elaborate on how.

“God bless the people of Israel,” he said. “They are under attack right now. That’s because we show great weakness.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has failed to permit a floor vote on bipartisan legislation passed by the Senate providing security aid to Israel and Ukraine, is accusing Biden’s administration of undermining Israel and appeasing Iran and that “contributed to these terrible developments.”

A Republican congressman, Mike Turner of the state of Ohio, is calling for a more robust response from Biden.

“I think the administration needs to take seriously that this attack has happened. It’s unprecedented and certainly it needs to be viewed as an escalation. This is an escalating conflict,” Turner, who chairs the intelligence committee in the House, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program Sunday.

Democrat Chris Coons, of Biden’s home state of Delaware, is urging lawmakers to pass Biden’s request for military aid to Israel.

“The House should promptly pass this coming week the long-delayed national security supplemental to ensure that our Israeli allies have everything they need to defend themselves from attacks by Iran and its proxies,” he said.