Last week, President Obama outlined his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State insurgents who have swept through and now occupy parts of Syria and Iraq. In his primetime speech, the president promised that the United States will work “with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. Ten Arab countries quickly announced they were joining the majority of Europe in the U.S.-led coalition and over the weekend indicated they would be willing to commit to the aerial bombing of Islamic State targets in Iraq.
Where does Israel fit in this growing anti-Islamic State coalition? While Israel is reportedly sharing satellite and other intelligence with the United States, the focus of the coalition effort and the prospect of teaming with some of its members appear to place Israel in a delicate position.
The cold reality is that cooperation by Israel with a slew of Muslim powers – including Iran, which, although refraining from direct engagement with Washington, is reportedly sharing intelligence with Western sources – would likely be unpalatable to both sides. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved the threat of large terror organizations to the top of his government’s priorities: He convened a meeting of top officials just hours after the president’s speech last week, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is said to be preparing anti-terror legislation spurred by revelations that several Israeli Arabs are thought to have traveled to Syria to join rebel forces there.
But even with these governmental actions that are consistent with a new understanding of the magnitude of the threat of the previously underestimated Islamic State, there are those who wonder whether the government and the media are overreacting to the admittedly gruesome beheadings of two Western journalists and an aid volunteer. Thus, for example, Amos Harel, writing in Haaretz, told his fellow Israelis to “calm down. There’s no reason for the Israeli leadership to be drawn into this circus over an organization that doesn’t currently have us in its sights.” He reminded readers that Israel just concluded nearly two months of hard fighting against Hamas in Gaza, and there is no guarantee that the fighting will not break out again. And he emphasized that the threat to Israel from the Islamic State isn’t nearly as serious as the existential threat posed by Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
There is no doubt that the Islamic State threat is real, and that an international coalition has the greatest chance of restoring a semblance of order in the region. However, given the political makeup of the coalition members and the other serious security and survival issues faced by Israel, it may well be that Israel’s ongoing quiet but vital role in the fight against the Islamic State is the best and most prudent course to follow. We hope that’s all it takes.