For Israel, ISIS is too close for comfort – but so is Iran

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg

Yossi Mekelberg


By : Yossi Mekelberg


Since ISIS announced itself on the turbulent stage of the Middle East, in a most horrid and gruesome manner, Israel and the jihadist organization tread very carefully with one another. October last year was the first time the organization released a YouTube video threatening the Jewish state with annihilation. However, Israeli decision makers see ISIS neither as a high risk nor an immediate threat.

Rhetorically Israeli leaders have found ISIS a rather useful point of reference with which to implicate and associate any other elements of militant Islam with whom they are in conflict; exploiting the obvious global revulsion toward ISIS’ actions for their own purposes. It is quite a mystery why ISIS leadership has refrained from including Israel more frequently in their propaganda.

Identifying the ‘Zionist entity’, at least verbally, on their list of targets, ostensibly would not do any harm to their cause among their supporters and those who they would like to recruit. One theory is that the organization is fearful of Israel and would like to keep it out of any coalition against them.

As long as ISIS is bogged down in Syria and Iraq, Israel is bound to be less of a priority

Yossi Mekelberg

This hypothesis was also fuelled by a recent interview with Jürgen Todenhöfer, a journalist and a former German Parliamentarian, who visited territories held by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He claimed that prominent militants among them told him that the one country ISIS fears is Israel.

According to his account ISIS perceives U.S. and UK ground troops lacking in experience in urban guerrilla warfare and short of counter-terrorism strategies. On the other hand, they perceive Israel as a much more credible enemy, vastly experienced in such situations.

Shifting priorities

Considering that ISIS faces not only one coalition, but one led by the U.S. and another by Russia, fear of Israel might be exaggerated, even if it contains an element of truth. As long as ISIS is bogged down in intense battles in Syria and Iraq, Israel is bound to be less of a priority.

That said, in the last few months there are signs of ISIS propaganda targeting Israel as well. It indicates ISIS still considers Israel a potential ‘trump card’ which they make use of under severe military pressure and on the verge military defeat. In their YouTube video, a masked ISIS militant dressed in military fatigues and holding a rifle, threatens in Hebrew that “we will enter al-Aqsa mosque as conquerors, using our cars as bombs to strike the Jewish ramparts,” until there will not be a single Jew left in the country.

For the Israelis the issue is way more multifaceted, considering the complexity and diversity of the forces and interests involved in the civil war in Syria. Until recent years Syria was potentially Israel’s most dangerous and powerful military threat. This threat no longer exists. Paradoxically, the strength of the Assad regime also guaranteed that the border between Israel and Syria was peaceful because it was also in the interest of the regime in Damascus.

Yet, as the neighbouring state from the north was disintegrating and the regime needed Iran’s help for its survival, Israeli interest in Assad staying in power lessened. Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon put it very clearly last week that if he was to choose between Iran and ISIS he would prefer ISIS.

There is an implied admission by Ya’alon that Israel has little impact, if at all, on who will eventually gain the upper hand in Syria. Moreover, if neither of the sides is regarded as preferable for Israeli interests, then the option of both sides exhausting themselves in battle is the one Jerusalem is bound to favour.

Choosing the enemy

For obvious reasons Israel is concerned with having Iranian Revolutionary Guard combatants so close to its border and the potential of Hezbollah growing in strength. However, its obsession with Iran, which sees only risks and never opportunities, might lead it toward underestimating the threat from ISIS. In terms of military capabilities and geographical proximity, ISIS is far from posing a serious threat at present.

Nevertheless, the presence for instance of the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade who swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS, close to the Israeli border, is not a development that Israel can afford to ignore.

Israel is concerned with having Iranian Revolutionary Guard close to its border and the potential of Hezbollah growing in strength

Yossi Mekelberg

Moreover, on the border between Egypt and Israel in the Sinai another jihadist movement affiliated with ISIS, Wilayat Sinai, has already been involved in lethal attacks on Egyptian military targets and was allegedly behind the downing of the Russian Metrojet airplane last October. More recently, a voice recording of al-Baghdadi appeared threatening that he and his lieutenants plan to attack Israel and, more worryingly for the Jewish state, are already operating inside Israel.

An unexpected verification of Baghdadi’s claim was done by the usually level-headed president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who said few days ago that “the Islamic State is already here, that is no longer a secret. I am not speaking about territories bordering the State of Israel, but within the State itself.” President Rivlin exaggerated the level of the support of ISIS among Arab Israelis, intending to underline the importance of improving the status and living conditions of Israeli Arab citizens.

Yet, it also points to the danger of the allure of ISIS as an appealing idea as for young people, especially in societies where there are many unresolved social, political and economic issues. Concentrating solely on the challenge presented by Iran could blind Israeli decision makers from taking the need to contain the ISIS-type menace seriously enough.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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