January 21, 2019

Israel vs. ISIS

The tragic attacks, first in Sinai, then in Beirut, and now in Paris, should remind us that the fight against ISIS — the fight against Islamic terror — belongs to no one country and no one religion. We are all threatened, we must all fight, and with every means possible.

Then why is it, I wonder, that Europe is fighting terror with one hand tied behind its back?

The havoc the terrorists wreaked upon Paris last week may be new to the West, but it’s old news to Israel. Gunmen shooting unarmed innocents? Ma’alot, 1974. Bombs made of propane tanks and nails? Afula, 1994. Suicide bombers in restaurants? Sbarro pizzeria, Jerusalem, 2001.  

One year ago this week, the Israel Defense Forces announced that undercover agents from its Duvdevan unit uncovered a 30-person Hamas terror network just as it was preparing to carry out a simultaneous attack on numerous soft targets around Jerusalem, including the city’s Teddy soccer stadium.   

Israel has developed a unique expertise in thwarting attacks before they happen. When it comes to fighting Islamic terror, other countries are, to borrow an unfortunate phrase from President Barack Obama, the JV team. Israel is varsity.

So in the international effort to disrupt and dismantle ISIS, why isn’t Israel playing front and center?

To defeat ISIS and the ideology that spawns it will take more than military might. But a combination of intelligence and military power is certainly part of the solution, and Israel could and should be one of the West’s most effective assets.

It’s a lot easier to hit ISIS in the Sinai by taking off from southern Israel, for example, than from Germany or Turkey. The Golan Heights looks down on ISIS positions in what was once Syria. Beyond geography, Israel has decades of experience in human and signal intelligence and counter-terrorism. It also has very cool toys, like the Super Heron drone. In July, an Israeli drone killed two Hezbollah operatives and three members of a pro-Assad militia driving on a road in Syria. It would certainly give ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pause to know he was on an Israeli target list.

In short, those who want to defeat ISIS have a potential front-line ally with equipment, expertise and experience.   

Right now, Israel’s role remains behind the scenes. Following the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left hinting that Israel has been useful in helping France, but clearly its ability to join a gathering international coalition is limited.

The list of countries that wants ISIS dead and gone grows longer by the week: France, Turkey, the NATO allies, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Russia, Egypt.  Jordan sent fighter planes to carry out bombing raids against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa long before France did.

The problem is that many of these countries find it more useful to cooperate  in the shadows with Israel — a greater demon than ISIS, evidently, in the eyes of their people. The fact that it is Israeli radar that collected telltale signals that a bomb took down the Russian airliner over Sinai has complicated the investigation with the Egyptian government, according to CNN.   

This is frustrating to the governments themselves, which know how effective and useful Israel can be.

Alon Ben-David, the defense correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10, told me the clandestine — but well-known — cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States in fighting ISIS and al-Qaida is a “mistress-like relationship”— it takes place only behind closed doors.

That’s also true, by the way, in areas of agriculture, water and industry. Israeli consultants on non-Israeli passports are a meaningful part of Gulf Arab economies — but all the light they bring remains in the shadows.

As heart-wrenching as ISIS’ attacks have been in Sinai, Beirut and Paris, they may also present an opportunity to shake up the Middle East status quo and bring Israel in from the cold. The old fight was Jew versus Muslim. The new and far more relevant fight is moderates versus extremists, modernity versus medievalism. On that front, Israel is the natural ally of many Arab states (whose degree of moderateness is, of course, relative).

The fight against ISIS, in other words, could become a historic milestone in Israel’s regional legitimacy.

We’ll see if Arab leaders have the good sense to go in this direction. Israeli military and diplomatic experts tell me that what would help, enormously, is for Israel itself to make a public and concerted effort to move toward a rapprochement with its Palestinian neighbors.

“The Gulf leaders are begging for some sort of progress,” a senior Israeli military official told me in early November, before the Paris attacks increased the urgency. “Not even a deal, just movement toward a deal.”

An Israeli-Palestinian thaw would help bring the Israel-Arab cooperation out into the open and begin Israel’s integration in the region and the world.  And it would help knock ISIS back on its heels. For decades, Israel fought alone, or almost alone. How different would the world look if that were to change?

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.