Israel Wants to Join the Coalition Against the Islamic State

But is this just Bibi playing politics?


TEL AVIV, Israel — On Sept. 10, just before Israel’s three TV networks began broadcasting the evening news, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an urgent security meeting. The meeting’s purpose, according to the premier’s office, was to prepare for the possible danger that the Islamic State (IS) would advance closer to the Israeli border.

In truth, as most of Israel’s intelligence community has been quick to point out, there are no signs that anything of the sort is actually happening. The jihadist organization’s fighters have not been spotted close to Israel’s border with Syria, while support for IS among Palestinians in the territories and among Arab citizens of Israel is thought to be rather low. The announcement, which predictably became the first item on the news for all three networks that evening, served another purpose: It was designed to prove that Israel is part of a broader U.S.-led coalition against Islamist terrorism and to divert attention from economic worries toward security threats — probably the oldest trick in the Israeli political playbook, and one that Netanyahu has used quite effectively in the past.

During the 50 days of Israel’s latest military conflict with Hamas in Gaza, Israeli TV devoted blanket coverage to almost every rocket launched, every successful rocket interception by the Iron Dome system, and every soldier’s death in Gaza. As the war wound down, it seemed that IS stepped right into the news vacuum — the video documenting American journalist James Foley’s execution was published two days before the last Gaza cease-fire. Since then, hardly a day has passed without extensive coverage of the jihadist group in the Israeli media: A series of special reports on Israel’s Channel 10 increased the station’s ratings during the evening news edition by nearly 50 percent.

The Islamic State’s "snuff" films — beheadings, prisoners being humiliated, and long, frightening speeches by bearded terrorists — resonate with Israeli TV viewers, just as they did with Western crowds. Still, it seems that the Israeli media’s response borders on an obsession with horrors, and interprets them through the country’s own experience with Islamist extremism. Channel 10 runs a weekly feature that includes interviews with a group of 7-year-olds regarding current events. One of the questions discussed last Friday: Which is worse, the Islamic State or Hamas? The kids held a short but comprehensive discussion about the differences between death by beheadings, guns, and rockets.

There shouldn’t be, of course, any reason to underestimate the potential threats of IS to the region at large. But the immediate danger for Israel does not seem to be significant. Most of the organization’s presence in Syria is currently centered in the country’s northeast, the farthest area from the Israeli border. Other jihadist groups pose a more immediate threat: IS’s advances have pushed other rebel groups, such as the al Qaeda-affiliate al-Nusra Front, toward the Israeli border. And Sinai-based jihadists have encroached on Israel’s border with Egypt, but they’re mostly yesterday’s news. Today, the bogeyman du jour is the Islamic State. Israeli security agencies are now apparently worried that a few dozen Israeli Arab citizens might have traveled to Syria to help the rebels, but it remains to be seen whether more than a couple actually joined IS.

Despite the growing concern, it should not come as a surprise that the Netanyahu government has not yet taken any immediate steps against IS. The government has only announced that the organization would be considered illegal in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and decided to focus intelligence-gathering on the group’s activities in Syria and Lebanon.

But while IS might not present an imminent threat at home, Netanyahu has been extremely eager to aid the Arab world in the battle against the group. Last week, the prime minister confirmed media reports that Israel was supplying intelligence to the new anti-IS international coalition. Jerusalem no doubt has useful information to contribute: For decades, it focused on acquiring first-rate intelligence about events in Syria, which it considered its toughest enemy.

President Barack Obama thus may face a problem similar to the one George H. W. Bush encountered before the 1991 Gulf War: Israeli participation risks alienating critical members of the coalition, such as the Saudis (and in this case, in a limited way, perhaps even Iran). For that reason, the United States may seek to keep Israel’s participation as low profile as possible.

The benefits Netanyahu receives by securing himself a place in Obama’s new coalition are equally clear: He is looking to position Israel at the vanguard of the Western fight against terrorism, not as some archaic relic of colonialist occupation, as Israel is sometimes described in European circles. The prime minister regularly emphasizes the similarities between IS and Hamas, portraying both organizations as part of the same continuum of Islamist extremism. Hamas played into his hands by panicking and publicly executing — albeit by a simple shot to the head and not by beheading — about 20 Gaza residents it accused of being Israeli collaborators. The images from Gaza and Syria, shown within 48 hours of each other, looked strikingly similar; you could hardly separate one hooded executioner from the other.

At the same time, Netanyahu finds it useful to encourage an Israeli political debate regarding the possible threats in the region. The prime minister wants "billions more" shekels for defense, locking him in a feud with Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who wants to curtail the Israel Defense Forces’ financial expectations in order to avoid tax increases. If security threats are seen as Israel’s paramount concern, then Israelis would likely still consider Netanyahu the right leader to deal with the situation — and he could continue focusing on defense, while blocking demands for major economic changes.

The Islamic State, then, is essentially the proof of Netanyahu’s argument that danger is lurking everywhere for Israel. After all, who would have guessed that an organization so large and brutal would appear out of nowhere within such a short time? Netanyahu is convinced that this could happen again — and that, a bit like the case of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, nobody expects the Islamic State. 

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