JERUSALEM — Israel has been providing Washington with intelligence about potential Iranian attacks. Its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has made Iran’s strategic ambitions an obsession. And as recently as February he floated the idea of war with Iran.
But analysts and former Israeli military and intelligence officials say the Israeli government is not angling for a full-blown war between the United States and Iran. Such a war, Israeli officials fear, could plunge Israel into a mutually destructive conflagration with Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
The insistent pressure on Iran, analysts said, is instead aimed at either forcing Iran to agree to a nuclear deal far stricter than the existing one, or creating conditions dire enough for fed-up Iranians to overthrow their government.
“Nobody thinks about regime change militarily, but to weaken the regime, to weaken the Iranian economy, and to make the people of Iran change the regime — this is, I think, the ultimate goal,” said Amos Yadlin, a retired head of Israeli military intelligence who runs the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Another very positive result is a better agreement.”
Israel has quietly played an instrumental role in the recently escalating tensions in the Middle East.
In meetings in Washington and Tel Aviv in the past few weeks, Israeli intelligence warned the United States that Iran or its proxies were planning to strike American targets in Iraq, a senior Middle Eastern intelligence official said. Israel also warned of Iranian attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, American allies that are enemies of Iran.
The Trump administration responded to the perceived threats, bolstered by its own intelligence, by moving an American carrier strike group, B-52 bombers and a Patriot missile-defense battery to the Persian Gulf and updating the Pentagon’s war plans against Iran.
The gathering clouds seemed of a piece with Mr. Netanyahu’s agenda.
He nearly took Israel to war with Iran in 2010, when he considered launching airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He has been pushing for harsher pressure tactics against Tehran since long before the Iran nuclear deal, which he denounced as too lax, was signed in 2015.
He has worked hand in glove with the Trump administration on its strategy of applying stiff economic sanctions to force Iran back to the bargaining table.
In February, Mr. Netanyahu even said publicly that a Warsaw meeting he had attended with some Sunni Arab diplomats had been about advancing “the common interest of war with Iran.”
But if the American-Iranian confrontation did set off a full-blown conflict, or even several scenarios well short of that, Israel sits directly in the line of fire.
If the Iranian regime believes its survival is threatened, or even if it wants to escalate without directly attacking the United States, it is seen as likely to try to draw Israel into the fighting.
Some Israeli officials have even argued that the weekend-long bout of combat with militants in Gaza this month was set off by Iran’s chess game with the United States. Iran, they noted, wields great influence over Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the militant group whose snipers wounded two Israeli soldiers, which Israel blamed for inciting the violence.
Israel could face a more potent attack from Syria, where it has roamed the skies attacking Iranian targets for several years, trying to stop Iran from entrenching itself militarily and from shipping precision-guided missiles through Syria to Lebanon. Its mastery of the skies there has not been cost-free: When Israel shot down what it said was an Iranian drone that entered Israeli territory in February 2018, one of its F-16 fighters was downed by a Syrian missile.
A new potential threat identified by Israeli officials is in western Iraq, where Iran is said to have transferred a number of missiles that could reach Israel to Iranian-backed forces in the area of Razazah Lake.
An Israeli security cabinet member, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, even broached the possibility in a television interview Sunday that Iran would try to launch missiles at Israel from its own territory. Mr. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment for this article.
A few missiles from Iraq or Iran could be deflected by Israel’s vaunted, multilayered air-defense network, which complements the short-range Iron Dome with the medium-range David’s Sling and long-range Arrow systems.
But no potential Iranian response is more frightening to Israel than if Tehran were to unleash the arsenal of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group that dominates much of Lebanon. Israel says Hezbollah has some 130,000 rockets, far more than necessary to overwhelm Israel’s air defenses. Iran treats those rockets as its greatest strategic deterrent against Israel.
“If they use Hezbollah, it’ll be devastating,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and top military intelligence officer. “I don’t know how many buildings in Tel Aviv will be destroyed.”
Israel has grim experience with blowback from American fighting in the Middle East: In 1991, Iraq fired dozens of Scud missiles at Israel after Baghdad came under aerial attack by the United States-led coalition, but Israel was persuaded to stay on the sidelines.
Today, Israel sees itself as more than capable of defending itself.
In a mutually assured destruction balance of power, Israel has threatened to level Beirut and much of Lebanon’s infrastructure in response to a massive Hezbollah missile strike. And Hezbollah is drained, both by cuts in Iran’s financial support and by its involvement in the long Syrian civil war, said Amos Harel, military analyst for Haaretz. “About a third of their operational force are casualties,” he said.
No one seems to want a war. On Tuesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said “we don’t seek a war, and they don’t either.”
On Wednesday, President Trump told acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan that he did not want to go to war with Iran.
Despite those expressed intentions, experts say, Iran is unlikely to sit still while American sanctions decimate its economy. Nor is the United States willing to tolerate Iranian provocations.
Israeli experts say, without any clear-cut proof, that Iran was behind a pair of recent purported attacks.
On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates said that four oil tankers had been sabotaged off the port of Jubairah, south of the Strait of Hormuz. And on Tuesday, Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are backed by Iran, claimed responsibility for drone strikes on a Saudi oil pipeline to the Red Sea.
If Iran was responsible for the two incidents, Israeli analysts said it was entirely foreseeable: Before Iran would cave in to a new nuclear deal or collapse under an economic chokehold, it was almost certain to try to exact a price.
“The Iranians’ motto is, if you’re going to prohibit exporting our oil, and get our production and exports down to half a billion barrels a day or less, which is an economic catastrophe for Iran, then we will interfere with the oil exports of other people,” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mr. Amidror said the two episodes, for which he blamed Iran, necessitated a strong American response. “They are testing the Americans, no question,” he said.
“If the Americans now act like nothing happened — ‘Iran didn’t spit on us, it’s only rain,’” he added, “it’s catastrophic, because it’s saying to the Iranians, ‘We won’t interfere.’”
What Israel can only wait to see, Mr. Amidror said, is how the United States handles Iranian provocations if they escalate, and what that does to perceptions of American willingness to stand up for its allies and stare down its adversaries.
“What kind of Middle East will we face,” he asked, “when it’ll be clear to other countries that Americans are not ready to fulfill what people expect them to do?”