Looking at the composition of the coalition who is fighting against Daesh, the first thing that jumps right out at us is that the only Middle East country daily committed against Islamic terrorism is not officially involved in the fight. What is Israel’s strategy at this regard? First, we have to focus on what the Daesh’s real objectives are, and what extent and on what terms these objectives entangle Israel: only then, it will be possible to interpret the Israeli government’s and citizens’ reactions through the analysis of the decision-maker statements and the public opinion responses.
Focus on geostrategy
Israel is surrounded by enemies. This is not just a perception, but also rather the starting point of all Israeli military decisions, upon which all the Middle East pawns are moved on the chessboard. To fight these enemies, Israel needs to establish a proper order of priorities, giving special emphasis on the country’s security. Daesh’s leader al-Baghdadi recently stated: “[…] The Israelis thought that we forgot Palestine and that they diverted our attention from the issue, but that is not the situation. We have not forgotten Palestine for a moment. […]”
Daesh obviously needs to get close to Sunni Palestinians as much as possible, even though the contribution by such small and poor population may not be a sufficient advantage to the extent of deciding to attack one of the most powerful Middle Eastern nations. The main purposes of organizations like Hamas and Fatah are indeed to destroy Israel and create an independent Palestinian state. These goals, however, appear to be far away from those of the jihadists of Daesh, whose major alleged goal is to establish a caliphate extending from Kazakhstan to the Spanish borders and put it under the control of a single political authority: This project does not include in any way an independent Palestinian state. Hamas’s weapons, such as Fajir rockets, come from Iran, which is also supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel. Furthermore, the internal struggle between Sunnis and Shiites is a thornier question than the Israeli threat.
We also need to focus on Saudi Arabia, the most relevant Islamic absolute monarchy: first, the religious movement of Wahhabism, prevailing in the Saudi state, is a pillar of al-Qaeda. However, al-Qaeda and Daesh are not the same movement. As previously stated, Daesh stemmed from this terrorist organization, but a more in-depth analysis makes easier notice that the differences between them are greater than the equivalences. Al-Qaeda acts like an underground political movement, whereas there is nothing that could be called ‘underground’ in Islamic state’s laws, school or its media.
Secondly, a political issue makes the religious similarities between Daesh and Saudi Arabia far more blurred: the latter is a recognized and legitimized state that would never put said similarities before the possibility of having economic relations with the West. In addition to these considerations, Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia advocates the recognition of the Saudi dynasty as legitimate guide of the Islamic world. These distinctions not only make Daesh’s expansion a severe threat to Saudi Arabia, but also explain what is behind the Saudi military intervention in Syria. The central issue is that Daesh has no allies. Its attitude is considered excessively subversive by all those Islamic states where solidly established orders work properly.
Daesh is progressively losing ground in Iraq and Syria, simultaneously fighting against some of the most powerful military forces of the world: it is no wonder that either time or interests are not yet ripe to launch an actual attack on Israel. Not to forget, on the other hand, that Israel is currently involved in a sort of cold war against Iran and a little-less cold war against Hezbollah, both declared enemies of the Daesh project.
Daesh is currently fighting against two main actors: the armed forces on the ground and Western people. Terrorist attacks claimed by Daesh, such as the recent ones in Paris, have been planned and carried out by cells on the territory, so it might be reasonable to wonder whether or not Israel worries about the presence of Daesh within its own borders. The Times of Israel reports an interesting statement by the Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon: “[…] There is occasionally a rocket shot from Gaza by Daesh, but it’s actually aimed at [challenging] Hamas […].In the West Bank there are a few cells. We took out an IS cell there a while ago. A few dozen Israeli Arabs went to fight with them [in Syria]. But overall, internally, including among Israeli Arabs and in the West Bank, this is under control. […]” At present, the jihadist group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, located in the Sinai Peninsula and directly affiliated with Daesh, may seem the biggest and nearest threat to Israel. However, this group has claimed responsibility of just few unsuccessful attacks against Eilat; hence, even the dangers posed by this one could be considerably reduced.
This does not mean that the Israel Defense Forces are not training to contrast any possible abduction of its soldiers by Daesh: however, this is not a top priority now. For example, in December the Israel Defense Forces has merged four elite military units to unleash its new Commando Brigade against Daesh. Here follows a brief overview of the forces deployed: Maglan, highly skilled in operating behind the enemy lines and in hostile territory (making use of advanced technologies and weaponry such as long-range anti-tank missiles); Duvdevan Unit, which operates as an urban warfare counter-terrorism division; Egoz Reconnaissance Unit, specialized in guerrilla, anti-guerrilla warfare, and more complicated ground activity; Rimon Reconnaissance Unit, a reconnaissance unit of counterterrorism active in the Palestinian territories. Speaking about these brand new units, the Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, said: “[…] Looking to the north and seeing the brazen statements made [by Hezbollah] and the overall atmosphere from Lebanon, the threats made by Islamic State commanders in Iraq and Syria, the security escalation we have been dealing with in Judea and Samaria, and the threats on the southern front, we must make the most of our abilities. […]” A statement that explains clearly how their efforts are not being focused on a single enemy, but on a series of threats very similar to each other. We also have to underline that Daesh leaders are well conscious that the Israeli army, unlike others, has a long-standing experience in guerrilla and urban warfare. However, going back to Ansar Bait al-Maqdis terrorist actions in the region of Sinai and analyzing it from a strictly political point of view, it can be said that they have caused more benefit than harm to the Israeli state.
The alliance with Egypt is a good example of that. To Israel, the fact that Egypt considers Hamas a terrorist organization has crucial importance, and the Operation Eagle led by the Egyptian military against the Sinai insurgents is a handy case study to understand the relationship currently ongoing between Israel and Egypt. Although the Camp David accords had established that the area should have remained demilitarized, Egypt’s military deployed tanks in the Sinai Peninsula, creating concerns on an excessive Egyptian military presence in the area. Because of these misunderstandings, in 2012 Israel and Egypt renewed their cooperation regarding Operation Eagle and the fight against terrorism, starting a fruitful cooperation on Sinai’s security.
Since the proclamation of the Caliphate, Jordan too has strengthened his relations with Israel. Undoubtedly, Jordan is the next target of Daesh, not just because of its major role in the international coalition, but also because it is a fundamental geopolitical crossroad and a symbol of the Western influence in the Arab world. Israel’s role in fighting Daesh seems clearer now: in 2013, Israel has sold 12 advanced unmanned aerial vehicles of the Heron TP and Skylark types; in 2014, 16 AH-1E/F Cobras helicopters, retired from the Israeli Air Force, were refurbished and handed over to Jordan. The Israeli State is also building a sort of protective barrier along the border with Jordan. In addition to the logistical support, Israel is probably helping Jordan and Egypt with its intelligence agencies and supplying it with gas from the Tamar field. Even though Amman is a dangerous target, it is to be hoped that Israel keeps supporting Jordan and Egypt in their military interventions against Daesh in a silent and hidden way. The most problematic issue is the influence owned by the Arab nations within the coalition, which in case of an Israeli involvement could possibly refuse to cooperate with them, especially those that have refused all along to recognize it as a state.
Iran is the priority
Israel considers Iran a worse threat than Daesh. Iran has obtained the Western States’ legitimacy with the international agreement on its nuclear program reached in Vienna on July 14, 2015. The harsh truth is that an enemy fought by so many nations arises less concern than an enemy that is not perceived as such by the international community. In a series of secret talks carried out in Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia have tried to find a common agreement against the Shia theocracy. Hezbollah, on the Israeli northern border, is notoriously pro-Iranian: in addition to fighting against Daesh, it has never stopped launching missiles against Israel. Israel, as well, has never stopped defending itself trough systems like Iron Dome. However, to start a real war, Israel undoubtedly needs more protection on the southern border, which is why it is trying to build up renewed relations with Riyadh. Even if Washington and IAEA has guaranteed to both Tel Aviv and Riyadh that they would have intensified checks on Teheran, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia really believe in the agreement on the nuclear program of Iran. The first is highly concerned about its nuclear hegemony and for its own survival; the latter does not want a Shiite-majority country to strengthen its economy and the fighting capacity of its armed forces. The Hezbollah case deserves a further study, mostly because the danger does not come from the Shiite terrorist organization, but from its exploitation by Iran. It seems that Iran wants to turn the Golan Heights into a potential strategic base for a direct action against Israel while also creating a lack of stability in Jordan, in order to gain more influence on the events across the Jordan River in Judea and Samaria. Nevertheless, the fact that Israel is facing ‘worst’ or ‘worst perceived’ enemies is not enough to explain the non-involvement of the Israeli armed forces against Daesh. In fact, Iran is part of the Russian coalition against Daesh. In this light, the Israeli decision not to intervene suddenly makes sense: this decision proves to be crucial, especially because maintaining the situation as it is today is likely to result in a scenario where both Iran and Daesh will focus on weakening each other. We can call it the ‘Daesh effect’.
The Israeli-Kurdish front
Even though there are no official relations between their governments, The Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli intelligence actively operate in Iraqi Kurdistan. Israel NGOs have sent humanitarian aid to Christian and Yazidi refugees and Israeli military elites are currently involved in the training procedures of Peshmerga, which is particularly important (given the fact that many soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces have voluntary served in the Kurdish army). Furthermore, the 75% of the fuel imported by Israel comes from Iraqi Kurdistan. A military, social, economic and humanitarian cooperation seems to have crystalized their joint effort against Daesh. However, Israel supports Kurdistan’s independence from Iraq because fostering a strategic partnership in the area could reduce the religious conflict against the ‘Muslim’ front. With the support of another Islamic ally, just like with Azerbaijan, Israel can reasonably count on a base for a future conflict against Iran, especially to carry out operations against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
To sum up, Israel is not directly militarily involved, foot on the ground, against Daesh. However, it is definitely involved in the war against Islamic terrorism. Since the Islamic State has not yet attacked the Israeli State territory, Israel is acting with caution, taking advantage of the turmoil in the Islamic world to establish relations with those Middle East nations that want to keep under control their own borders. The Israeli State is sending logistical support to Kurdistan, Egypt and Jordan, while its intelligence is working with some of its worst historical enemies, hoping to emerge from the military and political isolation that characterized it since its foundation.
Master’s degree in International Relations (Roma Tre University)
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