One of the best summations of Israel’s current threat assessment of the Islamic State (IS) came not from a government official or a military analyst, but from a popular Israeli satirical TV show. In a sketch on The Kitzis Program, spoof IS insurgents exclaim that they will not get around to confronting Israel until at least 2017, because they are up to their necks dealing with Shia, Yazidi, and others. In the end, they complain: the world does not always revolve around Israel.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did convene an urgent security meeting hours before United States President Barack Obama’s IS strategy speech on 10 September 2014. And the Israeli prime minister has formally outlawed IS, enabling a series of counter-terrorism measures to be taken against it. Nevertheless, the focus of Israel’s response has not been on any clear and present danger posed by IS. In line with Israel’s general response to regional upheaval, including that in Syria, as well as with how other regional actors have addressed the success of IS, Israel’s reaction has been part concern, part opportunism.
Israel, especially under Benjamin Netanyahu, likes to think of itself as the “CT ’R US” state. Given Israel’s experience and existing policies, IS so far presents little by way of a new challenge. Israeli intelligence assessments say that IS has not (yet at least) established itself in the occupied Palestinian territories – neither in Gaza nor in the West Bank nor in East Jerusalem – even though other extremist non-IS groups do have adherents there. Even during an uptick in violence in November, no connection was made to IS. One factor in IS’s absence is that these Palestinian territories are permanently under Israel’s intense and obtrusively watchful eye, subject to drone surveillance and covered by an extensive network of informants. Border crossings are strictly controlled and internal closures are applied. All of these security measures predate IS and make any new deployment essentially unnecessary.
In terms of Israeli fighters joining the ranks of IS, it is estimated that up to a few dozen Arab Israelis may have gone to fight in Syria, although they have mostly joined other rebel groups rather than IS. Israel has consistently maintained an extensive network of oversight and surveillance of its own Arab citizenry, and it is widely thought to operate racial profiling at border entry and exit points. Therefore, slipping back home undetected would likely prove very difficult for an Arab Israeli.
IS has so far neither actively targeted the Jewish state nor even made it a central talking point in its endless PR messaging. Even though one of the hostages beheaded by IS, Steven Sotloff, had acquired Israeli citizenship, the fact was apparently unknown to his captors: the harrowing texts and videos that accompanied his killing were addressed to the US, not to Israel. Most interpretations of the use of “al-Sham” in IS’s earlier preferred name, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), suggest that it does have designs on Israel – and its al-Qaeda roots would confirm as much. But so far, no such ambition has come to the fore. Even so, Israeli or Jewish targets overseas are an area of potential concern, although the attack by a returning fighter on a Jewish museum in Belgium in May 2014 does not appear to have been carried out in the name of IS.
In recent years, Israel has become acquainted with extremist Sunni Islamist militias operating in its immediate border areas: the Golan area in Syria, the Egyptian Sinai, and even in southern Lebanon. Although affiliations can be fluid, most of these groups have been more aligned to al-Qaeda than to IS. That might be changing – the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis declared its allegiance to IS in November 2014. From an Israeli security perspective, the difference may not be significant. When it has determined that hostile groups or individuals could pose a threat, Israel has conducted military strikes by air and at sea, including in enemy states, mostly claiming the justification of intercepting the delivery of weapons systems. It is reasonable to assume that it would take similar action in relation to IS.
The most serious threat from IS for Israel right now might be the prospect of an IS breakthrough in Jordan. Israel considers the stability of the Jordanian regime to be a strategic priority, despite recent disagreements with the kingdom related to Israeli policy in Jerusalem. Assessments regarding IS inroads into Jordan are thus far reassuring, and Israel is leveraging the situation to make itself more indispensable to the Hashemite kingdom. Israel is not alone in looking out for Jordanian stability, but if IS were to make advances there, Israel would have much at stake.
Given the degree of pre-existing Israeli consensus on what constitutes acceptable anti-terror policy, the response to IS has not been a particularly controversial domestic political issue. The IS challenge to Israel may come more in the arena of regional geopolitics – and not because of IS itself, but as a result of the dynamics that it could set in motion. Regionally, Israel is positioning itself to benefit from the brouhaha surrounding IS. This is neither unique to Israel nor particularly surprising.
The IS moment is seen by Netanyahu as an occasion to solidify Israel’s deepening ties with the region’s Sunni Arab states who are allied to the US – and to do so without offering concessions on the Palestinian front. At the annual conference of Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in September 2014, Netanyahu claimed“Arab states are re-evaluating their relations with Israel due to the fact we are facing the same enemies.” Many of these Arab states, together with Israel, are keen to use the IS crisis in order to drive home their broader message and policy: that the Islamist threat should be more expansively defined (to include the Muslim Brotherhood) and should include Iran and its Shia allies. For Israel, this most particularly means linking IS to Hamas, as Netanyahu has relentlessly done.
This is seen as an opportunity for Israel to demonstrate that it can continue to deny Palestinian rights and even conduct a devastating onslaught against Gaza, while simultaneously singing from the same hymn sheet as key Arab states (notably Egypt, Saudi, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates) on the defining regional issue of the day. That is a powerful narrative for a rightist Israeli government to be able to convey to its public.
This Israeli approach carries with it a number of potential risks. Israel has long opposed the supply of heavy weaponry to the Western-backed Syrian rebel opposition, given Israel’s preference for maintaining its absolute qualitative military superiority and freedom of action. That line might now be more difficult to hold. More worrying is the prospect that the Sunni allies will be unable to contribute effectively to the anti-IS coalition, especially when compared to Iran’s ability to intervene meaningfully, including on the ground. Israel’s regional threat map, at least as articulated by Netanyahu, continues to hold Iran as public enemy number one, and the potential impact of the IS fallout on Iran’s geopolitical standing considerably unnerves Jerusalem. IS may be targeting and even weakening Iran’s allies (such as Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and the Baghdad government), but in so doing it is creating new shared interests and opportunities between Iran and states aligned with Israel.
IS has the US and Iran lining up on the same side of a major regional fault line. They have conspired, if not together then at least in parallel, to replace the Nouri al-Maliki-led government in Iraq. The new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is still allied to Iran, as well as being better positioned to form an inclusive government in Baghdad that could be the beneficiary of stepped-up US assistance.
None of this means that the US and Iran are riding off into the sunset together, nor that US positions in the nuclear negotiations will be traded off against Iranian deliverables versus IS (or vice versa), as was again demonstrated when the negotiations could only produce another extension on 24 November 2014. Rather, the prospect has come tantalisingly into view of Iran and the West not only recognising shared interests, but also acting on them in some kind of coordinated fashion, something Israel has for decades been heavily invested in preventing. And regional actors that Israel now considers to be in its camp may recalibrate their approaches accordingly. The Kurds could be one example, given the support Iran has provided to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq.
Far more dramatic would be the emergence of a Saudi Arabia-Iran détente. But in spite of some rare high-level meetings and elements of Saudi-Iranian cooperation both in Lebanon and in Iraq, that still looks to be a stretch.
Still, it might be worth recalling that the last time the US put together a region-wide coalition to act militarily in Iraq, with Israel cheerleading from the sidelines but not on the field, was Gulf War I in 1991. What followed was an Arab-supported American push on Palestine that was unwelcome in Jerusalem and that unseated a Likud prime minister.
For now, though, Israel is welcoming the active redeployment of the US military to the region as set out in the US strategy for countering IS, although, characteristically, Israel still upbraids the White House for not doing enough. Israel is one of a phalanx of the US’s Middle East allies that are eager to see America re-up its military footprint in their backyard. Israel and that same coalition of Sunni states had grown anxious at the talk of a US pivot to Asia and to state-building at home. Any inkling from Washington of a prolonged return to the global war on terror will be music to Netanyahu’s ears.
Finally, Israel looks at the IS threat as a branding opportunity. Israel and the West can be presented as fighting the same good fight against Islamic terror, with a side benefit for Israel of again being able to market its own counter-terrorism practices, hardware, and software, to Western allies. IS is also being used as part of official Israel’s push-back against recent European initiatives to recognise Palestine, with Prime Minister Netanyahu asking before a French parliamentary vote: “Is it what France should do in this moment when some people behead people across the Middle East, including a French citizen?”
Israel is undoubtedly adept in its public messaging, but its branding efforts can have a tendency to be too clumsy, overbearing, and transparent. Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev has said that “Benjamin Netanyahu copy-wrote and then fell in love with his ‘Hamas=ISIS’ equation”, noting that he sounds to European capitals “like a used car salesman”. Israel’s own sales pitch aside, it is hard not to see Netanyahu’s policies as being a driver of rather than a countermeasure to Palestinian and regional radicalisation. In Netanyahu’s worldview, IS in any case is not the defining regional fault line – even Hamas is not given that honour. Former US official Dennis Ross has most adeptly definedthe fault line as Netanyahu sees it (although he avoided describing it as an Israeli position, instead recommending it for US policy): “a fundamental division between Islamists and non-Islamists. On one side are the Islamists – both Sunni and Shiite. ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood represent the Sunni end of the spectrum, while the Islamic Republic of Iran and its militias constitute the other.”
With this in mind, perhaps the biggest danger for Israel, as it is for some of its neighbours, is that the “IS metastasising threat narrative” could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Israel gets too carried away with its own rhetorical spin, Israeli analysis and subsequent policy regarding the Palestinians and Hamas will deviate even further from a sensible and sustainable path. In the current environment, Israeli overreach along with a doubling down on its already egregiously punitive policy towards the Palestinians could yet see the sprouting of something akin to the Islamic State in the territories controlled by the Jewish state. And all this at a time when Israel’s prime minister has been busy promoting new “Jewish state” legislation so disturbing that it not only contributed to the collapse of the governing coalition, but also gave rise to the cheeky new hashtag #JSIL – the Jewish State in the Levant.
This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.