ISIS in Israel

קבינטAs Israel’s media began marathon broadcasts on the three abducted Jewish youths, the world was busy with just one event: the fall of Mosul into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the disintegration of the Iraqi army. There is no apparent connection between the two, but one man dreamt up a connection and made full use of it for his own political ends. That man was Israel’s imaginative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The abduction and ISIS’s encroachment on Baghdad were an opportunity for Netanyahu to win back the world’s support for his political views. When he sent the mothers of the three youths to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on a weird propaganda mission entitled “Bring back our boys,” he already knew that they were no longer alive and that Hamas was taking no responsibility for the abduction. But for Netanyahu, everything is permitted in the struggle to regain the favor of the international community.

When the abduction was first known, Netanyahu convened the security cabinet to get government support for the military operation dubbed “Brother’s Keeper”, whose aim was to eliminate Hamas’ presence in the West Bank. The prime minister was granted a free hand. He used the abduction to demonstrate that “there is no partner” (for peace) and that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), merely by agreeing to a joint Palestinian government with Hamas, supports terrorism. He used the advance of ISIS to shore up his outlook on security, according to which the Jordan River is Israel’s eastern border, and thus to negate the possibility of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Moreover, during the assembly of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, Netanyahu declared that Israel supports the creation of an independent Kurdish state in the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan). Thus Netanyahu breaks up the Palestinian Authority by military operation and the state of Iraq by declaring a sovereign Kurdish state.

Everyone loves ISIS

Netanyahu is the first leader to call for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan in the face of US wrath. America called on the Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, to avoid such a step, because this would strengthen ISIS’s hold on Sunni regions and lead to Iraq’s disintegration. For Netanyahu, however, the main threat is not ISIS but Iran. In his opinion, with the creation of a Kurdish state, Israel would gain a friend on Iran’s border. This would serve as a counterweight to Lebanon, which Iran has shaped as its own outpost on Israel’s northern border.

These are tense moves in a fascinating game of chess in which Netanyahu takes advantage of Iraq’s and Syria’s disintegration to promote what he believes are Israel’s strategic interests. ISIS is doing the work not only for Netanyahu, but also for Saudi Arabia, which was very happy to hear that ISIS was hammering on the gates of Baghdad. Saudi Arabia would love to see the fall of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the Saudi kingdom’s sworn enemy and the ally of Iran’s ayatollah regime.

Thus ISIS became the darling of both Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia, for ISIS hates the Shiites much more than it hates the Jews. At the same time, it is the darling of Syria’s Bashar Assad and Iraq’s Maliki: these two exploit the fears of the Americans and Europeans, who worry that Jihadists holding Western passports will bring the battle back to Europe and America. In a bid for the West’s support, Assad and Malaki portray Isis as the greater evil, while behind this scrim of fear they continue murdering or oppressing their own people. ISIS benefits in any case, but particularly from the anarchy caused by the decay of dictatorships from Egypt through the Persian Gulf to Syria and Iraq.

ISIS’s success cannot be disconnected from the Sunni uprisings in Iraq and Syria. After years of discrimination, suppression, economic exclusion, and hostility, Sunnis view Iran and its satellites in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon as their bitter enemies.

The fear of the Arab Spring

The “pragmatists” in the Zionist left, mainly Meretz and Labor Party supporters, stand in open-mouthed surprise as ISIS strengthens Netanyahu and the right wing. The latter are already talking about beefing up the security fence in the occupied Jordan Valley to defend Israel’s permanent presence there, an act that would put an end to any chance of agreement with the Palestinians. The Israeli left’s alternative is of course to strengthen Abu Mazen and link up with the Egypt-Saudi Arabia-Persian Gulf axis. This is a conservative, narrow Zionist perspective, which does not understand that the rise of ISIS is due to the Arab Spring’s failure to bring democracy to the Arab world.

The Arab Spring shook up all the regimes, but Saudi Arabia and Iran succeeded in suppressing the democratic uprising in two central states: Egypt and Syria. Saudi Arabia and Iran are indeed enemies, but they are united in their fear of any democratic change which threatens their regimes. Saudi Arabia took steps against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, because the Brotherhood was an expression of political Islam that gained power by adapting to the democratic game, as in Turkey and Tunisia. Iran, for its part, supports Assad, because his downfall is liable to spark renewed rebellion against the ayatollah regime, which has been under constant threat since the Green Revolution of 2009.

It is shortsighted to call for establishing a “moderate axis” with Abu Mazen as well as the Jordanian and Saudi kings, because each is perceived by his own people as a dictator, a traitor to the people’s interests. These regimes are so unstable that a few thousand ISIS fighters can shake up the entire region. Opposition to them is increasing all the time. It is a mistake to think that the Arab Spring is over. Demonstrations and strikes in Egypt continue, and those who follow the Egyptian media see heated debates and severe criticism of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime.

The revolutionary youth are hounded, but their popularity remains high. They are the alternative to ISIS and fundamentalist Islam, and they are struggling for democracy and economic development based on equality for the entire region. To count on the “moderate” Arab regimes is to count on the past and ignore the educated middle-class youth and the working class who constitute the Arab world’s future.

Netanyahu will one day yearn for Hamas

By his constant refusal to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, Netanyahu is building ISIS not only in Iraq and Syria but in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip too. ISIS broke away from Al Qaeda, which it saw as too moderate. The greater the suppression, poverty and exclusion, and the more the dictatorships suppress democratic change, the more extreme will the alternative be – in keeping with the people’s despair.

Hamas grew on the despair following the failure of the Oslo Accords and the corruption of the Palestinian Authority. Now, as Hamas takes a more moderate stand due to the Egyptian embargo and is willing to compromise with Abu Mazen, Netanyahu – like his Egyptian counterpart Sisi – is acting to eliminate it. If he succeeds – who will fill the vacuum? An even more extreme organization. Every call of “Death to the Arabs” shores up the call “Death to the Jews,” and every door closing on an agreement opens a door to fundamentalist Islam. There is no need for a vast number of extremists – it is enough to have a handful with public support.

The suppression of the democratic uprisings known as the Arab Spring did not lead to a “moderate axis” but to the rise of ISIS on the one hand, and, on the other, to the deepening of the Israeli right’s refusal to accept a just peace. This is the ground on which a local version of ISIS will flourish. ISIS is not far away; it is hammering on the doors of the Jordanian kingdom, growing roots in the Sinai Peninsula, and gaining support in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. No fence in the world will stop it from spreading.

ISIS is an emotional condition, an extreme expression of an extreme situation, and the more anarchy reigns, the more likely it is that Israel will find itself confronting ISIS. It is possible that Netanyahu, like Assad, Sisi and Maliki, will enjoy the world’s support as a “fighter against terrorism.” However, this will not help the people of Israel, who will have to cope with a very different situation than the one they have grown used to. It is not just “Judea and Samaria” that are “inside Israel,” as the settlers like to say, but ISIS too.

– Translated by Yonatan Preminger

About Yacov Ben Efrat