Between ISIS Attacks and Negev Summit, Israel Finds Its Place in New Mideast

Israel’s new partners, the ‘moderate’ Sunni regimes who sent their foreign ministers to the country this week, have been ISIS targets for years. The latest terror attacks show what Israel has in common with these neighbors

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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The foreign ministers of Israel, Bahrain, Egypt, the U.S., Morocco and the UAE in the Israeli kibbutz of Sde Boker, Monday
The foreign ministers of Israel, Bahrain, Egypt, the U.S., Morocco and the UAE in the Israeli kibbutz of Sde Boker on Monday.Credit: Saeed Jumoh/AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The rules of journalism dictate that three similar events can be called a “trend.” However, the three terror attacks that took place in Israel in the space of eight days, in which 11 people were killed, are not yet part of a discernible wave. While at first glance they can all be grouped under the umbrella of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it becomes much harder to classify them once you start looking at the details.

For a start, unlike previous waves of violence, they are not coming in the wake of a specific incident or subclause of the conflict such as tension around the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. It’s also hard to categorize all of the perpetrators into a distinct group: it was a Negev Bedouin in the first attack in Be’er Sheva last week; Arab Israelis in the second case in Hadera on Sunday; and a West Bank Palestinian in Bnei Brak on Tuesday.

With two shocking attacks, ISIS rears its head in Israel. LISTEN

And while in each case their broad aim was to murder as many Israeli Jews as possible (at which they only partially succeeded given that two of the victims were Arab and Druze police officers, while two others were foreign workers from Ukraine), their inspiration may not have been so uniform.

Those involved in the first two attacks were affiliated with ISIS and had served time in Israeli prisons for trying to join the caliphate in Syria. They framed their actions in the wider context of the war to cleanse the Middle East of Christian and Jewish invaders.

The shooter in Bnei Brak was not affiliated with any organization and had allegedly been motivated to carry out his attack because of the recent death of a friend of his in clashes with the Israel Defense Forces.

The exact motive doesn’t always matter when it comes to a sequence of seemingly unrelated attacks. “It’s not an exact science,” as one Israeli intelligence official put it this week. The security services are still of the view that it’s all part of the heightened tensions ahead of the month of Ramadan.

But perhaps there’s another context.

The escalation in terror attacks is happening at precisely the same time as the unprecedented flowering of Israel’s relations with the Arab world. The first attack in Be’er Sheva took place just as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was landing back from a three-way summit with the leaders of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in Sharm el-Sheikh. The attack in Hadera occurred as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was about to host the foreign ministers of Egypt, the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain, along with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in the Negev. And on the day after the Bnei Brak attack, President Isaac Herzog made the first presidential visit in 15 years to Amman, where he met with Jordan’s King Abdullah.

Border Police officers securing the scene following a terror attack in Bnei Brak, central Israel, on Tuesday evening.Credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS

It’s not just the meetings themselves – it’s the openness with which they are happening. The tieless informality. The smiles. The sudden acceptance of Israel by most of its neighbors and other Arab states as a natural regional partner to do business with – both on security and intelligence matters, and on economic and trade affairs.

Unlike the “cold peace” Israel has generally had in recent decades with Egypt and Jordan, ties with the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain have been much warmer and included the visits of hundreds of thousands of Israelis to their countries. In turn, it’s starting to warm-up those cold ties with Egypt and Jordan, and beginning to have a wider effect on other Arab countries.

The one thing all these bilateral relationships have in common is that they are bypassing the Palestinians and their conflict with Israel. If in the past the Palestinian issue was an obstacle, real or contrived, to ties between Israel and the Arab world, now it is at most an afterthought – a couple of sentences of lip service in the closing statements of another Arab-Israeli summit.

And perhaps there’s a connection there, even on a subconscious level, to the recent attacks – especially the first two that were carried out by ISIS sympathizers.

Seven or eight years ago, when ISIS’ caliphate was at its peak, controlling wide swaths of Syria and Iraq and attracting many thousands of young Muslims from around the world, it was noticeable that only a relatively small number of Palestinians – both Israeli citizens and from the occupied territories – seemed interested in joining up. The main explanation was that, as Palestinians, they had a more immediate conflict at home and therefore had little reason for joining a different jihad in Syria or Iraq.

There was also a sense that the nihilistic, pan-Islamist cause of ISIS could dilute or even taint the Palestinian cause were they to join it. Whatever the reason, ISIS attacks against Israeli targets (unlike against Jewish targets in Europe) were rare even in the movement’s heyday.

It’s too early to talk of a ISIS resurgence and renewed focus on Israelis and Jews. But if we see similar attacks in the near future, it could be a sign that at least on the margins of the Palestinian communities, there is growing disaffection with the existing “resistance” organizations and a preference for other, wider affiliations. Just as the Palestinian issue is being bypassed on the diplomatic and political level, there may be those who are seeking to attack Israel under the much larger flag of extreme Islamism.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog shaking hands with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman on Wednesday. Credit: HAIM ZACH/Government Press Office

Israel’s new partners, the “moderate” Sunni regimes, have been ISIS targets for years, and Israel could now be in their sights as well. It would be yet another sign that Israel is finally becoming an accepted part of the region.

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