Tel Aviv, Israel — Judging by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations earlier this week, one might think it is Israel, and not Syria or Iraq, that faces the greatest threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“Everywhere we look, militant Islam is on the march,” he warned, describing it as a “cancer.” At one point he deployed a Nazi reference: “The Nazis believed in a master race. The militant Islamists believe in a master faith,” he said. “They just disagree about who among them will be the master.”
The hardline group rampaging across eastern Syria and western Iraq was one of two major focal points in Netanyahu’s meeting with US President Barack Obama on Wednesday, according to advisers. Despite the rhetoric, though, analysts and security officials say Israel is actually not too concerned—yet—with ISIL. It is geographically distant, with most of its forces deployed hundreds of kilometers away from Israel’s vastly better-equipped army.
The CIA believes ISIL may have up to 30,000 fighters. But it has no airpower, and a motley collection of ground vehicles, some of which are now being blown up by a campaign of Western and Arab airstrikes. It is not a formidable threat, in other words, to one of the world’s most advanced armies.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader and self-proclaimed caliph, has also made it clear that conflict with Israel is not a major priority.
In his first public address, a sermon delivered in Mosul in July, Baghdadi made only passing reference to Palestine, naming it as one of dozens of Muslim grievances. He listed it seventh, after further-flung conflicts in places like the Caucasus and Indonesia. Israel went entirely unmentioned.
The group’s ideologues have stressed that their first priority is the so-called “near enemy,” Arab regimes deemed insufficiently Islamic. War with Israel is not on the agenda.
If Israel really viewed Hamas the way the international community viewed ISIL, it wouldn’t have accepted a ceasefire, followed by indirect talks.
“Israel is paying attention, because there’s instability across this region and Israel is a part of it,” said Benedetta Berti, a researcher at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “But a direct threat? The political and defense establishments don’t see it as one.”
Still, Israeli officials say they do have a few concerns about the group. One of them relates to Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel and is viewed here as a sort of buffer from the rest of the region. The kingdom is already struggling to cope with more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, and is worried about growing sympathy for ISIL in some of its impoverished cities, such as Ma’an and Tafilah. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called Jordan’s stability a “vital national security interest,” and urged the international community to do more to support it.
Police and the Shin Bet security service also worry about Israeli citizens, or Palestinians, who might join the group. A 24-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel was arrested on Monday and questioned about possible “association” with ISIL; analysts say several people from Gaza have traveled to Syria to fight as well.
But these cases remain extremely isolated. The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation estimates that just 120 people from Israel and the Palestinian territories are now fighting in Syria and Iraq. (Tunisia, with a similar population, has 3,000).
In the absence of a direct threat, then, ISIL has become more of a rhetorical device than a security threat: Netanyahu has repeatedly linked the fight against ISIL to his country’s battles with local militant groups.
His UN speech was not the first time he compared the group to local militants: “Hamas is ISIS, ISIS is Hamas,” he said last month, using an alternative translation of its name. His office tweeted a photo of the beheading of American journalist James Foley, juxtaposed with an image of “collaborators” executed by Hamas in Gaza.
The comparison does not stand up to scrutiny. Hamas and Hezbollah both have primarily local aims, and they engage in electoral politics, which groups like ISIL consider to be forbidden. Hamas has rejected any comparison; Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently called ISIL a “monster” that must be destroyed.
Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the US State Department, dismissed the comparison to Hamas earlier this week, saying that “certainly we see differences.”
And Israel, of course, has indirectly negotiated with both Hamas and Hezbollah, which nobody has proposed doing with ISIL.
“I don’t agree with the comparison, and I’m not sure the Israeli government agrees with it either,” Berti said. “If Israel really viewed Hamas the way the international community viewed ISIL, it wouldn’t have accepted a ceasefire, followed by indirect talks.”
If there is one thing about ISIL that genuinely worries Israel right now, it is actually the campaign to destroy the group.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier this month that Iran had a “role to play” in the fight. His remarks prompted deep concern here: officials fret that Tehran will offer to help the campaign in exchange for a more advantageous deal on its nuclear programme.
At a Rosh Hashanah reception earlier this month, Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, dismissed “absurd talk about Iran being a partner,” a thinly veiled shot at Kerry.
“They are not a partner, they were not a partner, they never will be a partner,” Dermer said, calling a nuclear Iran “a thousand times more dangerous” than ISIL.
“ISIS is an enemy of Iran… they’re trying to get concessions from the West for something that they’re already interested in,” said Eytan Gilboa, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “And there’s much concern in Israel that this will be the case.”