Israel Is No Longer the Center of the Mideast Story

Netanyahu's claim that Israel is the primary target of radical Islam ignores the historic battle unfolding in the region, in which the country's role is marginal.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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In this Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014 photo, Iraqi Shi'ite militiaman aim their weapons during clashes with militants from the Islamic State group, in Jurf al-Sakhar, 43 miles (70 km) south of Baghdad, Iraq.
In this Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014 photo, Iraqi Shi'ite militiaman aim their weapons during clashes with militants from the Islamic State group, in Jurf al-Sakhar, 43 miles (70 km) south of Baghdad, Iraq.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In his polished speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Middle East, with a bit of generalization, as a region swarming with danger - with Israel at its center. A cautious person should keep their distance - and a Jew must certainly think twice before leaving home. In the world according to Benjamin Netanyahu, Islam is everywhere and its vast majority is radical and searching for prey.

Iran is the Islamic state, in other words ISIS, in other words Hamas. And all of them, together and separately, are determined to fight the West and its spearhead, Israel. The positive potential as far as Israel is concerned is not in the possibility of peace with this well-known Holocaust denier, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but in a rather hazy promise for an alliance of interests with moderate Sunni states such as Egypt and Jordan.

The fifty shades of black that Netanyahu describes in the region actually do exist. There is also quite a bit of truth in his warning to the international community not to forget the Iranian nuclear threat, just because of the new focus on the less serious threat coming from the Jihadist Sunni organizations, and first and foremost Islamic State. Iran, as far as Israel is concerned, is an immeasurably more sophisticated and problematic enemy. Not just because of its nuclear program, but because of the vast aid it provides to terrorist organizations and subversive movements all over the Middle East. And still, a conversation with a senior defense official a few hours before Netanyahu's speech revealed a somewhat different strategic picture of the situation in the region. Maybe less coherent and less convincing from the public relations angle, but more complex nevertheless.

Israel, according to this approach, is not the center of the regional story: Not just because the solution to the conflict with the Palestinians is no longer considered the key with which all the problems of the Middle East could be solved, but because what has been going on outside Israel's borders for the past year or two (as a delayed result of the outbreak of the Arab Spring) has for a long time been a much greater story, on which Israel has had only a marginal effect so far. The battle to the death between Shi'ites and radical Sunnis is wreaking havoc not only within the ancient borders set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, but is also completely changing the lives of tens of millions of people living in the space between Lebanon and the border of Iraq and Iran.

This is a historic struggle of broad scope, whose end is not in sight. It has been brought into tighter focus by the meteoric rise of Islamic State, which entered the vacuum left by the weakening of the regimes in Iraq and Syria. If the organization had not been carried away by its very own demagogy and psychological warfare tricks, and had not insisted on executing in cold blood three Western journalists and aid workers between the end of August and mid-September; it is very likely that it could have continued to slaughter thousands of Shi'ites, Alawites and Yazidis undisturbed.

But Islamic State's successes are actually what brought on its own troubles. The release of the horrific videos of the beheadings shook up the West and awakened it from its slumber, and led to the establishment of the new international coalition, led by the Americans. That is how the decision was made, for the first time, on Western aerial strikes inside Syrian territory and later in Iraq. What three and half years of massacres and a murderous chemical weapons attack mounted by the Assad regime in Syria failed to achieve, three video clips whose victims were citizens of the United States and Britain succeeded in doing.

From the Israeli viewpoint, the aerial attacks against Islamic State have borne their first results and harbor the possibility of an even better outcome. The organization's forces have retreated under the in a number of areas in Syria, except for the Kurdish region where the coalition delayed its actions. Gradually, Islamic State too is adapting itself to the new conditions and is reducing its open military presence, with the goal of minimizing its vulnerability from the air. In any case, the air strikes will not be enough to drive Islamic State out of its strongholds or to strengthen the more moderate opposition groups in Syria in their war against the Assad regime. Israel hopes the bombings herald a change in the American approach, as a result of which they will - with a very considerable delay - provide much more significant aid in funding and weapons to organizations such as the Free Syrian Army.

Meanwhile on the Golan Heights, rebel organizations have taken control of 90 percent of the border with Israel, except for Mount Hermon and the nearby Druze enclave of the village of Khader. The more moderate militias have remained faithful to what can be construed as indirect commitments to Israel and in most of these areas have prevented access to the border itself from the more extreme Nusra Front group. This is a very fluid situation, but the defense establishment does not identify any immediate danger there, for now.

What is Israel's place in all these struggles? Various defense officials are displaying unity of opinion: Israel must be careful not to be dragged into the center of conflicts not its own. Israel must continue to act responsibly, to broadcast resoluteness toward attempts to attack its territory - but also understand it does not dictate regional developments. Wise behavior means creating alliances, permanent and sometimes temporary, with countries and even local organizations. All this should be done with the understanding that the developments occurring now will continue to rock the region for a long time.

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