U.S. and allies on the move against the Islamic State: What about Israel?

In an address to the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya on September 11, 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged his “full support” for President Obama’s announcement of an American-led coalition of allies to defeat the Islamic State (IS) extremist group. Israel is already paying close attention to extremist groups at its borders; just recently 43 U.N. peacekeepers were captured by al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria) near the Israeli-Syrian Quneitra crossing, and IS, with its widening control over Iraq and Syria, also poses an imminent threat to Israel. 

Nevertheless, one thing remains certain. With jihadist terrorism sweeping the Middle East, Jerusalem will be eager to take part in the multilateral counterterrorism tactics being carried out by the U.S., NATO, and Middle Eastern neighbors. However, one question remains: what exactly does Prime Minister Netanyahu mean by “support” for the offensive against IS?

Does Netanyahu’s statement denote potential Israeli military cooperation? Intelligence gathering? Financing and training of foreign militants? Or is the Prime Minister merely vocalizing full ideological support for the counterterrorism tactics? Undoubtedly, Israel’s role in any campaign against the Islamic State will trigger important debate regarding the appropriate level and type of involvement, and arguably, if any level of involvement at all is justified.

On one hand, Israel is only six weeks clear of an “unlimited” ceasefire with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In the midst of post-war negotiations and planning for the rehabilitation of hard-hit sites in Gaza, some argue that it is too soon for Israel to engage in any type of counter effort against another extremist Islamic group. No matter the justification for Israel’s recent engagement with Hamas, tensions still run high among the Arab-Muslim population. Within this landscape, any Israeli involvement in operations against ISIS could provoke heightened criticism of the country’s foreign and security policy.  

According to the adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, support for President Obama’s coalition of nations would put Israel on the same side as Turkey, Qatar, and even Iran, as reports indicate U.S. willingness to cooperate with Iran on the IS threat. These three countries maintain confrontation with the Jewish State and have records of supporting Hamas both financially and militarily. Direct security cooperation with any of these countries on the part of Israel is unlikely, and participation in the United States counter operation would involve Israel’s direct engagement (e.g. training, intelligence) in neighboring Syria and possibly Iraq.

No link between Israel and Qatar, Turkey, or Iran would occur directly, because any military communication would likely come from the United States. Regardless, any decision to join the counterterrorism effort is a direct reflection on Israeli political ideology: in joining efforts to defeat the people who seek our destruction, should we collaborate with the people who also seek our destruction?

Ideology aside, any Israeli-supplied intelligence shared with the United States and any military equipment sent abroad would be “scrubbed of any evidence of Israeli origin” so as not to create tensions with the Arabs and Turks who would be using them, one western diplomat reported. While a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry made no comment on Israeli involvement in ongoing efforts against the Islamic State, the same western diplomat revealed that Israel provided the U.S. with satellite imagery over Iraq that would otherwise not be available under current U.S. surveillance.

This news resolves the question of what type of support Israel will provide the US, and confirms premonitions that involvement will most likely take the form of shared intelligence. In addition to satellite surveillance, information may include analysis of regional passenger travel and trends in Arabic social media, in order to build a better profile of the composition of IS actors on the ground.

With these perspectives and information in mind, it seems ultimately likely that Israel will take a backseat approach in the international efforts to combat the Islamic State. With this strategy, Israel can support efforts to steer the threat of radical Islam away from its borders without facing the brunt of international criticism.

Still, Israel shouldn’t press its “luck” (for those who wish to call it that). Palestinian Authority and Israeli security forces are convinced that IS is already operating in the Gaza Strip despite recent rejections from Hamas. If that report proves credible and IS is indeed approaching Israel’s borders, Israel will surely need to rethink its current backseat approach to the multilateral efforts to counter the Islamic State.