LONDON – At first sight, it seems that Israel is just as preoccupied with the rise of Islamic State as anyone else. Israeli media report diligently on the extremist group’s assault on the Kurdish town of Kobani and run at least a story every few days on its atrocities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu references Islamic State frequently, as do other Israeli ministers. And the stories of two Palestinian citizens of Israel who died fighting for the group have been recently featured in the press.
Still, Israel remains the least concerned and least directly threatened country in a region increasingly rocked by Islamic State’s advance. It certainly does not see the group as an external threat. Shocking though the events in Syria and Iraq are, Israel is far beyond the range of even the most sophisticated of Islamic State’s weapons. The group’s immediate territorial interests do not extend to anywhere near Israeli borders, and its support in areas adjacent to Israel is still negligible.
What’s more, unlike many militant groups and states in the region, Islamic State has declared itself emphatically disinterested in intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preferring instead to draw its support from Sunni revanchism and introducing a semblance of order into war-torn regions of Iraq.
Islamic State also does not yet pose an internal threat to Israel. Unlike most countries bordering Syria, Israel has not been politically or demographically unsettled by the civil war there. The diversified systems of control used by Israel — some liberal democracy and some military rule — have cemented differences among the constituencies disgruntled with the Israeli government. The divisions have precluded the emergence of a broad uprising similar to those that constituted the Arab Spring.
The short, highly militarized border between Israel and Syria has prevented the influx of refugees into Israel, as well as any significant spread of the fighting.
In the absence of incentives to change policy, Israel remains determined to display an official disinterest in Iraq and a staunch neutrality toward Syria. Although the government has often expressed sympathy for victims of the Syrian civil war and offered some of them medical treatment, and has on one or two occasions hit targets in Syria, Israel has been careful to signal to Syrian President Bashar Assad that it considers him a relatively reliable neighbor and won’t work actively to replace him.
It’s also unlikely that Israeli leaders will come under any internal pressure to change this position. While the images of the war in Syria have prompted some Palestinians to travel abroad and take up arms against the Syrian regime, sometimes fighting alongside jihadist organizations, the numbers have been small with their wrath, for now, directed at the Syrian regime, not at Israel.
Images of Islamic State’s atrocities, combined with the group’s religious fanaticism, contempt for nation-states and express disinterest in the Palestinian cause have left Palestinians — largely secular, nationalist and deeply committed to building their own nation-state — more alienated than allured.
Even attempts by Israeli centrists and the U.S. to tie progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the fight against Islamic State have left Israel unmoved. Israel, the argument went, should make concessions in its talks with Palestinians to mollify Arab populations as their governments yet again throw in their lot with the Americans — and by extension, with the Israelis.
This tactic rests on the idea that the only real threat that Islamic State poses to Israel, however remotely, is if it toppled any of the “moderate” Arab states, especially Jordan, by invading them or capitalizing on their local discontents, or a combination of the two.
But the Israeli government, which has no interest, political or ideological, in facilitating a two-state solution, has so far responded with a shrug. The view in Israel is that the moderate Arab regimes are sufficiently threatened by the spread of Islamic State to prioritize drawing the Americans in, warts and all. If anything triggers revolutions in these countries, it will not be the plight of the Palestinians.
The lack of direct threats notwithstanding, Israel has been able to extract some short-term gains from unfolding catastrophe. With the West again mobilizing against a radical Islamist group, Netanyahu finds himself on the familiar turf of the “war on terror.” He is capitalizing on this by trying to equate Palestinian nationalism — especially the religious wing of it — with Islamic State at every conceivable opportunity (even if with little perceptible effect).
Second, Israel is again making itself useful to the West as a corner of stability and pro-Western sentiment in an otherwise turbulent Middle East — and is using this to push the Palestinian issue further down the agenda.
These considerations apart, Israel sees Islamic State as something that’s happening to other people — and the country will do its best to keep it so.
Dimi Reider is an Israeli journalist and an Associate Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed here are his own.
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