(Bloomberg) -- When Iraq fired dozens of Scud missiles on Israel in early 1991, the US implored then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir not to respond. Shamir said he had to act. After days of late-night calls, high-level visits and long cabinet meetings, Israel stood down and the US led a 42-nation alliance that defeated Iraq in what became the Gulf War.

Iran’s decision to launch 350 missiles and drones at Israel last weekend was the first time since then that a sovereign nation carried out such an assault on the Jewish state. Another hardline Likud party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is prime minister and an equally frantic set of calls and visitors is urging him not to react while cabinet meetings focus on the need to do something.

But while offering many parallels, the latest events are different from 1991 in at least one significant way: Israel’s powerful Western allies aren’t offering to do the fighting for it. Rather, they’re suggesting that no one challenge Iran militarily just now. And many in Israel, including in Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, say that will not fly.

Iran has said its mission is over after seeking to avenge an attack on its diplomatic compound in Syria. Israel claimed success after repelling the barrage with virtually no damage or deaths. Yet the urgent question remains whether the two plunge into a deeper direct conflict with repercussions beyond the Middle East, and how much of the answer comes down to Israeli politics — and Netanyahu’s survival instincts.

“We can’t absorb this quietly,” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said on Israel’s Army Radio on Wednesday. “We are at a crossroads regarding our place in the Middle East, as well as that of our children. Our deterrence is in a problematic spot, and a weak response is dangerous.”

US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have told Netanyahu all week to “take the win,” referring to the fact that — with their help and that of neighboring Arab states — Israel stopped 99% of the projectiles aimed at it.

The Israeli government and public are in fact torn about how to proceed. A poll from Hebrew University published on Wednesday showed half believing Israel should not respond and half saying it should, even if it means extending the current round of the conflict.  

Then there’s how to do it, and whether to do it alone. Brigadier General Zvika Haimovich, a former head of aerial defense, said there’s no way Israel will do nothing, but “I think it is very important for Israel not to stand alone against Iran.”

Many commentators abroad express frustration that Israel’s allies give it such support, yet Netanyahu seems to blow them off for his own political survival. He needs his hard-right partners like Smotrich to stay in office, the argument goes, and so instead of pursuing what’s best, he listens to them.

Netanyahu is already the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history. But while the 74-year-old is deeply unpopular because of the way his far-right government has pushed populist policies and failed to anticipate the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, few in Israel — even among his critics — think the dilemma over Iran is mostly about him.

“It’s not about Netanyahu,” says Yoel Esteron, publisher of the business daily Calcalist and a harsh critic of his. “The divide between those who say we have to do something isn’t really political anymore. I am hearing people who are definitely on the left saying we can’t tolerate hundreds of missiles without responding, and generals eager to show their manhood saying, ‘Wait a minute, let’s stop.’”

Those who know Netanyahu well say that this is a hinge moment for him for several reasons. Iran has been the core of his strategic concerns for decades. When the US went to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq again in 2003, he was arguing that the real threat was Iran. 

Second, the failure of Oct. 7 will determine his legacy unless he can turn the current moment into a reversal and reshape Israel’s security position. As a result, they say, he’s taking his time deciding what to do next.

Israel has faced harsh criticism by its allies for its war on Hamas in Gaza. That war, spurred when Hamas operatives swarmed into Israel last October, killing 1200 and kidnapping 250, has killed 33,000, according to Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. Whole neighborhoods have been leveled in Israel’s attempt to root out Hamas fighters in tunnels. Hunger is rampant. 

So the warm embrace of those same governments now, vowing to punish Iran with sanctions, has been comforting. “We need the hugs,” Esteron said. “It’s nice, but nobody knows how it will affect the thinking of the Iranians. We’re on the horns of a dilemma.”

It’s not a new dilemma. Golda Meir, who was prime minister in the early 1970s, famously said, “If we have to choose between dead and pitied, and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image.” 

Apart from Iran, Israel has Hamas fighters still entrenched in Gaza holding scores of its hostages. It’s also facing daily battles in its north with Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy. And many Israelis would rather deal with those conflicts than take on Iran just now. 

“One thing Israel realized on October 7 is that what we think of as ‘deterred’ is not necessarily so,” said Menahem Merhavy, a researcher on Iran at Hebrew University’s Truman Institute. “Hamas was not deterred; Hezbollah is not deterred. We still have Gaza on our plate and the hostages and the north. That’s where we need to put our focus now.”

Jonathan Conricus, a former military spokesman for Israel, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says that no matter what Israel will directly hit Iranian soil.  “The minimum would be to strike Iran hard enough to cause them to pause and think many times again before doing this again,” he said.

--With assistance from Henry Meyer.

(Adds comment from former military spokesman in last paragraph. An earlier version corrected the title of Zvika Haimovich in 8th paragraph)

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