The Silence of the Israelis on ISIS
In the war on the Islamic State, the alleged scourge of humanity, little is heard about the position of America’s much-ballyhooed greatest ally in the Middle East, if not the world, Israel. Now the Islamic State has been conquering territory in very close proximity to the border of Israel. But Israel does not seem to be fearful and it is not taking any action.
And the Obama administration and American media pundits do not seem to be the least bit disturbed. This is quite in contrast to the complaints about other Middle East countries such as Turkey that are being harshly criticized for their failure to become actively involved in fighting the Islamic State.
For example, a New York Times editorial, “Mr. Erdogan’s Dangerous Game,” begins, “Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once aspired to lead the Muslim world. At this time of regional crisis, he has been anything but a leader. Turkish troops and tanks have been standing passively behind a chicken-wire border fence while a mile away in Syria, Islamic extremists are besieging the town of Kobani and its Kurdish population.”
An article in the Boston Globe read “Turkey has failed Kobani, Kurds.” An editorial in the USA Today was titled “Turkey waits as ISIL crushes Kobani.”
Neocon Charles Krauthammer in “Erdogan’s Double Game” compared Turkey’s failure to come to the defense of the Kurds in the surrounded border town of Kobani to Stalin’s unwillingness to aid the uprising of Polish nationalist forces in Warsaw in 1944, thus allowing the latter’s destruction at the hands of the Nazis.
“For almost a month, Kobani Kurds have been trying to hold off Islamic State fighters,” Krauthammer wrote. “Outgunned, outmanned, and surrounded on three sides, the defending Kurds have begged Turkey to allow weapons and reinforcements through the border. Erdogan has refused even that, let alone intervening directly.”
Even the normally antiwar Noam Chomsky expressed support for protecting the Kurds. “With regard to Kobani, it is a shocking situation,” Chomsky opined. “This morning’s newspaper described Turkish military operation against Kurds in Turkey, not against ISIS, a couple of kilometers across the border where they are in danger of being slaughtered. I think something should be done at the UN in terms of a strong resolution to call for a ceasefire.”
“It is hard to impose the use of force,” Chomsky continued, “but to the extent that it can be done try and protect Kobani from destruction at the hands of ISIS, which could be a major massacre with enormous consequences.” Chomsky added that “the strategic significance of the town in the Kurdish region is pretty obvious, and the Turkish role is critical in this.”
Returning to the issue of Israel, the fact of the matter is that Israel acts to protect its own national interests. At the current time, the primary goal of the Islamic State is to purify Islam rather than attack non-Muslims.
In response to Internet queries as to why the militant group wasn’t fighting Israel instead of killing Muslims in Iraq and Syria, its representatives responded: “We haven’t given orders to kill the Israelis and the Jews. The war against the nearer enemy, those who rebel against the faith, is more important. Allah commands us in the Koran to fight the hypocrites, because they are much more dangerous than those who are fundamentally heretics.”
As justification for this stance, the group cited the position of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, who began his caliphate by fighting against those he deemed apostates who still professed to be followers of Islam. (Shiites hold a negative view of Abu Bakr and his policies). Also cited was Saladin, who fought the Shiites in Egypt before conquering Christian-controlled Jerusalem.
Considering the Islamic State is targeting Muslims, the Israeli government does not see it as a significant enemy at this time. And it is reasonable for Israeli leaders to believe that the Islamic State would never move on to attack their country because it will never be able to conquer its major Islamic foes, though American military involvement would further secure Israel from any possible threat from the Islamic State.
Moreover, the fact of the matter is that the Islamic State actually benefits Israel by causing problems for those very states that do actively oppose Israel and support the Palestinians, such as Syria. What the Islamic State is causing in the Middle East is perfectly attuned with the view of the Israeli Right — as best articulated by Oded Yinon in 1982 — which sought to have Israel’s Middle East enemies fragmented and fighting among themselves in order to weaken the external threat to Israel.
Currently, these divisions are not only plaguing Syria and Iraq, but also Turkey, where ethnic Kurds are rioting because of the government’s unwillingness to help their brethren in Syria, and Lebanon, where the Shiite group Hezbollah — allied with Iran, Israel’s foremost enemy — is being assailed by the radical jihadist Nusra Front, which has the support of many Lebanese Sunnis. [See Jonathan Spyer, “The Shia-Sunni War Reaches Lebanon,” Jerusalem Post, Middle East Forum, Oct. 17, 2014.]
More than this, the Netanyahu government is trying to take advantage of the Islamic State’s aggression by falsely claiming that Hamas is its equivalent. In an address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 29, Netanyahu asserted that “Hamas’s immediate goal is to destroy Israel. But Hamas has a broader objective. They also want a caliphate. Hamas shares the global ambitions of its fellow militant Islamists.”
Thus, Netanyahu claimed that it is wrong for countries to criticize Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians in its conflict with Hamas, pointing out that “the same countries that now support confronting ISIS, opposed Israel for confronting Hamas. They evidently don’t understand that ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree. ISIS and Hamas share a fanatical creed, which they both seek to impose well beyond the territory under their control.”
In short, Netanyahu maintained that the Islamic State and Hamas were essentially identical, “when it comes to their ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas.”
Now there is nothing strange about Israel’s position here. It is simply acting in its own national interest. There is no reason to fight a group that doesn’t threaten it. Furthermore, it is in Israel’s interest to try to make it appear that it is acting for the good of all humanity when attacking Hamas, and though these arguments are unlikely to sway any UN members, the prime minister did provide ammunition to the Israel lobby and its supporters that could be used to persuade some gullible Americans.
It can be argued that if Israel openly entered the fray as a member of the anti-Islamic State coalition, it would be counterproductive. Since many Arabs see Israel as their major enemy, Israel’s involvement in the war would turn them against fighting the Islamic State and maybe even cause some of them to support that militant jihadist group as an enemy of Israel.
So it might be understandable that the United States would not demand that Israel participate in the war against the Islamic State, just as it did not expect Israel to fight against Saddam Hussein. Although this might be understandable, if true it would mean that Israel could not really be an ally of the United States in the Middle East because it could not participate in America’s wars in the region, which is the very raison d’état of an ally.
Conceivably, Israel could covertly support the enemies of Islamic State. Israel has been doing just that in regard to Syria. During the past two years it has launched airstrikes against Assad’s forces which has helped the rebels. Israel takes the position that any attacks on its territory from Syria are the responsibility of the Assad government even if they are made by the rebels.
Moreover, just like the United States, Israel has provided training for Syrian rebels. For example, Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir al-Noeimi, currently the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army, secretly trained in Israel in 2013 after being admitted into the country for medical treatment. [See “Report: Commander of Syrian Rebels Trained in Israel, Jewish Press News Briefs,” Feb. 24, 2014. In regard to Israeli participation in training Syrian rebels, see: Jason Ditz, “Report Claims US, Israeli Trained Rebels Moving Toward Damascus,” Antiwar.com, Aug. 25, 2013,; Jinan Mantash, “Israeli analyst confirms link between Israel, ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels,” Alakbar English, Oct. 17, 2014.]
Staying Out of the Fray
Israel’s pro-rebel activities in the Syrian conflict have not been counterproductive in that they have not caused any of Assad’s many Arab enemies to abandon their effort to remove his regime. But it is not apparent that Israel is taking any steps like this regarding the Islamic State, and the United States does not seem to be pressuring it to do so.
What this means is that Israel is not really any type of ally of the United States. It does not bend its foreign policy to aid the United States but only acts in its own interest. It takes actions against the Assad regime because the latter is an ally of Iran and provides a conduit for weapons being sent to Israeli’s enemy Hezbollah.
Israel’s inaction toward the Islamic State, despite its close proximity, should actually provide a model for the United States to emulate. It shows that the Islamic State should not be regarded as a threat to the faraway United States. And this lesson is further confirmed by the fact that the nearby Islamic countries, which should be far more endangered than the United States, do not seem to be fighting hard against it. It would seem that the fundamental way for the United States to face significant attacks from the Islamic State is to attack it first, which is exactly what it is now doing.
Considering Israel’s inactivity, it is ironic that in the United States it is the supporters of Israel, such as the neoconservatives, who have taken the lead in pushing for a hard-line American military position against the Islamic State. [See Jim Lobe, “Project for a New American Imbroglio,” LobeLog Foreign Policy, Aug. 28, 2014.]
Neocon Max Boot, for example, wrote about the need for “a politico-military strategy to annihilate ISIS rather than simply chip around the edges of its burgeoning empire,” which would “require a commitment of some 10,000 U.S. advisors and Special Operators, along with enhanced air power, to work with moderate elements in both Iraq and Syria.”
Fred and Kimberly Kagan have developed a strategic plan involving up to 25,000 American ground troops to combat the Islamic State, which I have already discussed at length. Some of the other noted members of the neocon war-on-the-Islamic-State chorus include Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Dan Senor, David Brooks, John Bolton, Richard Perle, Danielle Pletka (vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute), and, as noted earlier, Charles Krauthammer.
Needless to say, neither the neocons, nor any other mainstream commentators for that matter, have uttered a word about Israel’s inaction. As Scott McConnell wrote in August in The American Conservative, “over the past two generations thousands of articles have been written proclaiming that Israel is a ‘vital strategic ally’ of the United States, our best and only friend in the ‘volatile’ Middle East. The claim is a commonplace among serving and aspiring Congressmen. I may have missed it, but has anyone seen a hint that our vital regional ally could be of any assistance at all in the supposedly civilizational battle against ISIS?”
However, it would be far wiser for the United States to follow the example of Israel here — and, in fact, always follow the example of Israel by adhering to national interest (that of the United States, of course, not Israel) — than to follow the advice of those American supporters of Israel who have, because of their influence on American Middle East policy, involved the United States in endless wars creating a regional environment beneficial to Israel from the perspective of the Israeli Right.
Stephen J. Sniegoski is the author of The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel