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Pointing at ISIS. Pointing at Iran. Pointing Anywhere but Palestine.

Ron Skolnik
September 22, 2014
ISRAEL AND THE RISING CALIPHATE by Ron Skolnik NetanyahuIT WAS, WITH ONE SMALL but crucial exception, the kind of gathering Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had always yearned for: an international coalition, led by the United States, backed by the European Union and the Arab League, with the blessing of the United Nations and the participation of all five permanent UN members, assembling to map out strategy against a common foe threatening Middle East stability. Just as Netanyahu had always recommended, the global alliance that convened in Paris on September 15th was applying muscle, pledging to use “any means necessary,” including military operations, to achieve its goal. It would have been the crowning achievement of years of diplomatic toil on the Israeli leader’s part, but for one thing: The enemy, from Netanyahu’s perspective, was not the right one. For while the prime minister has spent his last five and a half years in office seeking to convince the international community to team up against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the new ad hoc coalition had come together instead to defeat the extremist Sunni organization known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” — ISIS. Netanyahu’s focus on Iran and its nuclear program goes back much further than his 2009 election victory. In his 1995 book, Fighting Terrorism, Netanyahu estimated that by 2000 Iran would have all the “prerequisites required for the independent construction of nuclear weapons,” after which, he foretold, it would be, “five to seven years at most” before Iran had an atomic bomb in its arsenal. As head of the Likud opposition, he called that same year for an “international front headed by the U.S.” to prevent such a development. So when ISIS gained international prominence in June by routing Iraq’s army, taking over large swaths of that country, and pressing ever closer to Baghdad, Netanyahu’s first concern was not to allow this new threat to divert the spotlight from the arch-enemy in Tehran. Asked on Meet the Press on June 22nd whether he was worried that President Obama’s just-announced steps to blunt ISIS’ advance might end up strengthening Iran’s regional influence, the Israeli premier suggested that the U.S. had its strategic priorities all wrong: “[B]y far the worst outcome that could come out of this is that... Iran would come out with nuclear weapons capability,” Netanyahu said. “That would be a tragic mistake. It would make everything else pale in comparison [emphasis added]. I think the ultimate and the most important goal in the Middle East is to make sure Iran does not have nuclear weapons capability because those weapons, unlike mortars and machine guns that can kill thousands, and chemical weapons that kill tens of thousands, these weapons, nuclear weapons, could kill millions. That should be prevented at all cost.” NETANYAHU AND HIS ALLIES are therefore troubled by recent reports of possible cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in the anti-ISIS campaign. In particular, Jerusalem fears that the P5+1 group (the U.S., UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) currently seeking to hash out a permanent nuclear deal with Iran might be motivated to show too much flexibility in those talks in return for Tehran’s collaboration. While President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been focusing their energies on maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq these past few weeks, Netanyahu and Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz have politely but firmly been defining ISIL’s growth as a second-tier crisis. In remarks to the New York Times, Steinitz encapsulated the viewpoint: “ISIL,” he opined, “is a five-year problem. A nuclear Iran is a 50-year problem, with far greater impact.” Netanyahu, Steinitz, and others are particularly concerned about the possibility of the P5+1 reaching a “bad deal” with Iran. Such a deal, they argue, would lift the sanctions regime without forcing Tehran to dismantle its centrifuges and give over its stock of enriched nuclear material. As a result, they claim, Iran would be a nuclear threshold state that could make a “dash for a bomb” and have one in “a few months” — a year at most. Not wishing to seem out of step with the world’s near-consensus on ISIS, or to pick another public fight with the Obama Administration, Netanyahu has been politic enough to make the right noises about Da’esh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS generally used in Israel). In a key September 11th policy address to the prestigious International Conference on Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, for example, he declared that “Israel fully supports President Obama’s call for a united action against ISIS,” proudly citing his country’s contribution to “our common battle,” which reportedly has come in the form of spy-satellite imagery and other intelligence. Just a few days later, though, Steinitz, widely considered Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, was less diplomatic. Returning from high-level U.S.-Israel strategic consultations in Washington, the intelligence minister released a statement that, while welcoming US efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition, stressed that, “the more important mission remain[s] stopping the Iranian nuclear project.” Remarkably, the American statement summing up the same set of meetings omitted any reference whatsoever to Iran, focusing instead on the aftermath of the Gaza war and on West Bank settlement activity. Clearly, on ISIS and Iran, there is plenty of daylight between Washington and Jerusalem. ISRAEL, IT SHOULD BE NOTED, does not completely dismiss the security threat posed by ISIS. It simply doesn’t regard it as an existential one — at least for the moment. Speaking to Israeli journalists in mid-September, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon explained that because ISIS “operates far from Israel, in eastern Syria, [it] does not pose a threat to our interests right now.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had earlier voiced a similar assessment. The geographic aspect is central, of course. For while an ISIS with “mortars and machine guns” might not be a concern when based in Raqqah, its presence further south would be an Israeli casus belli. As early as June, reports surfaced of an Israeli readiness to take military action were its eastern neighbor, Jordan, to be in danger of an ISIS takeover. In recent days, Jerusalem seemed to signal an even lighter trigger for a military response when an unnamed Israeli government official stressed that the mere “entrance of Da’esh into Jordan” could destabilize the kingdom and have “direct security ramifications” for his country. Israel is also on the lookout for homegrown ISIS cells. The Defense Ministry has defined Da’esh as an “unauthorized organization,” which gives Israel the legal infrastructure to halt the funding of any ISIS-linked groups and prosecute its members. Netanyahu has asked the Justice Ministry to suggest legal measures that would ban and punish shows of support for ISIS, and the Israel Police have vowed to crack down on “any expression of solidarity” with the group, including via Facebook posts. Meanwhile, the Shin Bet security agency estimates that about a dozen Arab citizens have gone to Syria to fight as part of the Islamic State. Together with the rest of the Israeli ‘spook community,’ Shin Bet has stepped up its intelligence-gathering efforts on such individuals. Notwithstanding these precautions, however, Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino recently reported that ISIS had not yet set up shop within Israel’s borders. WHILE ISIS MIGHT NOT BE Israel’s primary security focus, it has begun to play an outsized role in the country’s hasbara (public diplomacy) on the Palestinian front. The two issues intersected in late August, as Israel’s war with Hamas slogged into week seven and the world learned of ISIS’ decapitation of journalist James Foley. On August 21st, two days after the murder video was released, the Twitter account of Israel’s Prime Minister released a controversial image (warning: graphic) that juxtaposed a picture of the orange-jumpsuited Foley and his knife-wielding captor with a photo showing Hamas’ summary execution of suspected informants and collaborators. The caption read: “Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas.” Angry comments followed, and the tweet was soon deleted and the image edited. The text remained, however, and the message was hammered home — in Cabinet statements, and in meetings with members of Congress such as Darrell Issa. Netanyahu’s intent, of course, was to ride the coattails of outrage in order to prop up international support for Israel’s Gaza war effort, and particularly to reclaim the moral high-ground, as the number of Palestinian civilian casualties swelled and the U.S. and UN reprimanded Israel for not doing enough to prevent them. When the war ended a week later, and with Hamas commanding less attention, Netanyahu widened the frame to now place Israel at the vanguard of a Manichaean Western-Islamist clash of civilizations. “We’re fighting not just Israel’s war,” Netanyahu told visiting Congressmen from New York and California, but, “a common battle against enemies of mankind.” Linking ISIS to groups as religiously and geographically diverse as Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab (“supported many of them by regimes that propel terrorism to the front, like Iran”) and terming them “branches of the same poisonous tree,” Netanyahu has called forth the specter of an impending war of Gog and Magog: “[I]f we don’t face down these forces... they will advance not only in the Middle East, but beyond to Europe, to the United States, to every part of the globe.” And since the enemy is a monolith, the battle against it needed to be “indivisible,” Netanyahu concluded, since, “if they gain ground somewhere, they gain ground everywhere.” Ipso facto: Israel’s hard line vis-à-vis the Palestinians was part of the solution, not the problem. Lieberman, despite his tense political rivalry with Netanyahu, has backed him up on this point. In a meeting with John Kerry, Lieberman maintained that the only difference between ISIS and Hamas is their media strategy. “Ultimately,” he insisted, “the aim of all Islamic terror is one and the same: the destruction of Western civilization.” LIEBERMAN’S AMERICAN COUNTERPART ISN’T BUYING IT. A day after Netanyahu’s 9/11 speech, in her daily press briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf summarily dismissed the Israeli analysis: “We need to be very careful when we... compare different terrorist groups... Each one has different capabilities; each one has different aims,” she stated. Taking questions on the ISIS-Hamas comparison specifically, she replied: “I’m not going to equate them... I would not say that Hamas and ISIS have the same goals... I don’t want to compare them to Hamas in any way.” And, for good measure, Harf also made it clear that the U.S. regards Israel’s approach as amateurish and counterproductive: “[L]umping them all together doesn’t help us fight them, because you’re not talking about the threat precisely and therefore aren’t talking about how you deal with it precisely.” Some evidence suggests, in fact, that Netanyahu himself might not believe his own sound bite. Both before and during the Gaza war, in-the-know Israeli columnists such as Amos Harel, Ben Caspit, and Shlomi Eldar reported on official Israel’s aversion to toppling Hamas for fear that a more radical grouping would fill the power vacuum. What is important to note in Netanyahu’s rhetoric on ISIS, however, is not just the tie-ins he makes to Hamas and Iran, but the resounding absence of any reference either to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has staked his reputation on an explicit opposition to terrorism and violence, or to the need for a two-state solution to anchor stability. Netanyahu’s disregard for finding a settlement with the Palestinians has been so obvious, in fact, that the liberal Haaretz newspaper plainly entitled a recent editorial: “Islamic State is no excuse to ignore Palestinians.” So while Netanyahu has argued that growing Islamic extremism has created an opportunity to build an “axis of regional cooperation” and has welcomed the development of stronger ties with Sunni Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority remains a non-partner — not only for peace, but in the realm of security as well. THE PRIME MINISTER’S MOST REVEALING REMARKS, perhaps, came in a late-June address he delivered to a major Israeli think-tank, just prior to the start of the Gaza war. Elaborating on the two-state approach he first recommended in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, Netanyahu explained that while the Palestinians might be able to enjoy “political and economic control,” they would have to accept “Israeli security activity on the ground” — inside the Palestinian state itself. Only the IDF and Shin Bet, he insisted, could, “prevent the manufacturing of rockets and missiles inside Palestinian territory and their firing into Israel... the digging of tunnels into our territory... Maintaining the demilitarization of the Palestinian state,” he stipulated, “must be in Israel’s hands” [emphases in the original]. Netanyahu is certain that if Israel were ever to pull out of the West Bank, control of the territory would quickly fall to “radical Islamic forces.” Citing the Gaza and south Lebanon examples, he maintains that “local forces trained by the West to stop the Islamists cannot be relied upon.” With zero faith in Palestinian moderates, he refuses to ever sign an agreement in which Israel waives its claim to full security control in all areas west of the Jordan River. Such control is “a must,” reiterated an Israeli official in recent days. Netanyahu’s centrist rivals sharply disagree. Like the prime minister, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who led Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid both seek a new regional alliance in which Israel would partner with Arab states against Islamic extremism. As opposed to Netanyahu, however, both warn that Israel will never be able to form such a “coalition of sanity,” in Lapid’s words, unless Jerusalem displays the flexibility needed to work with Palestinian moderates and achieve a two-state outcome. Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of Labor heartily concurs. With the Israeli media greatly expanding its coverage of Da’esh in the weeks since the Gaza ceasefire, and a full 70 percent of Israel’s citizens feeling endangered by the organization, according to a recent poll, ISIS is rapidly becoming an important factor in the nation’s political discourse. In recent years, Netanyahu has capitalized on Israel’s existential fears to win two straight elections. The ability of one of his rivals to unseat the man Time magazine once nicknamed “King Bibi” will rest, in part, on their success in convincing the public that they have a better answer for this latest regional threat. Ron Skolnik, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is an American-Israeli political analyst and columnist. Until recently he directed the non-profit Partners for Progressive Israel, and for many years served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.