How Does Israel Assess the Threat Posed by ISIS?

by Derek Davison

A former senior analyst for Mossad, Yossi Alpher, told an audience in Washington Thursday that Israel sees the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) as an “urgent” national security concern, but the context of his talk at the Wilson Center implied that the extremist Sunni group does not top any Israeli list of threats. In fact, Alpher seemed to suggest at times that the actions of IS, particularly in Iraq, may ultimately benefit Israel’s regional posture, particularly with respect to Iran. He also called the American decision to intervene against IS “perplexing.”

Iran, unsurprisingly, topped Alpher’s list of “urgent” Israeli security threats, but he downplayed the prospect of a nuclear deal being struck by the Nov. 24 deadline for the negotiations and focused instead on the “hegemonic threat” Iran allegedly poses. Indeed, the former director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies was mainly concerned with an Iran strengthened by close alliances with Iraq and Syria as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon and now potentially expanding its reach into Yemen, whose Houthi rebels have made major military gains in recent weeks.

Alpher identified the threat of extremist/terrorist organizations as Israel’s second-most urgent threat, but within that category he placed Hamas and Hezbollah ahead of IS. He allowed that IS “threatens to reach very close” to Israel, particularly if it manages to make inroads in Jordan, where polls indicate that a significant minority of the population does not see IS as a terrorist group, and where there has been vocal opposition to King Abdullah’s support for the US-led anti-IS coalition. Indeed, Alpher suggested that Israel should try to defuse current tensions over the Temple Mount, which have caused Abdullah to suffer politically at home, in order to forestall an increase of IS sympathy within Jordan.

Several of Alpher’s later remarks seemed to suggest that the activities of IS in Syria (at least those that have targeted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) and in Iraq may actually pay dividends for Israel. If the primary threat to Israel’s security is, as Alpher claims, Iran, and not just Iran’s nuclear program but also its regional hegemonic aspirations, then any movement that opposes Assad—a long-time Iranian ally—and that threatens the stability and unity of Iraq—whose predominantly Shia government has also developed close ties with Tehran—is actually doing Israel a service. It apparently doesn’t matter if that group might also someday pose a threat to Israel. It’s in this context that Alpher described America’s decision to intervene against IS as “perplexing.” He questioned the US commitment to keeping Iraq whole, noting that an independent Kurdistan would be “better for Israel,” and said that, as far as Syria’s civil war is concerned, “decentralization and ongoing warfare make more sense for Israel than a strong, Iran-backed Syria.”

The tone of Alpher’s remarks on IS echoed a number of recent comments from top Israeli government and military figures. Earlier this month, the IDF’s chief of staff, Lt. General Benny Gantz, told the Jerusalem Post that “the IDF has the wherewithal to defend itself against Islamic State,” and then went on to describe Hezbollah as Israel’s most immediate security concern. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also told PBS’s Charlie Rose on Sunday that Israel is contributing intelligence to the anti-IS coalition, but suggested that it was doing so because it has “a very good relationship with many parties who participate in the coalition,” not because it perceives IS as a near-term threat to Israel. Finally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 29 made several references to IS, but only as a secondary threat to Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program or in conflating IS with Hamas and, really, every other Islamic extremist group in the world.

Alpher made pointed criticisms of the US-led effort against IS in an exchange with Wilson Center president and former House member, Jane Harman, who pushed back against his characterization of US “mistakes” in the region. He was particularly critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Egypt, arguing that it “made things worse” by failing to support the Mubarak regime in 2011 and trying instead to “embrace” the democratically elected (and now imprisoned) Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and then by failing to welcome the military coup that eventually put current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in office.

Harman questioned whether a stronger show of American support for the increasingly authoritarian direction of Egypt’s politics would hinder any effort to counter the anti-Western narrative upon which much of IS’ support and recruitment is based. Alpher’s answer, and indeed a recurring theme in his remarks, was that the question of narratives and terrorist recruitment is irrelevant to an Israeli security framework that is focused only on the most immediate threats (or, as he put it, “on what will bring short-term stability”).

The emphasis on the short-term is one of the defining features of Netanyahu’s term in office, particularly in his dealings with the Palestinians, but also in Israel’s broader security posture, and it may well cause greater problems for Israel in the long-term.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. A decentralized Syria and ongoing war is better for Israel than a strong Iran backed Syria. Spoken like a true warmonger. It’s time to let Israel either swim or sink under its own weight without the U.S. backing it up, regardless of what the circumstances bring. Considering how Israel was born, I don’t believe that it could survive in a state of peace without war. Of course, that’s MHO.

  2. Agreee or not, I always start with firmly believing that History OWES a Jewish homeland to the Jews, based solely on what “God’s Semites” have suffered down through the ages, with The Holocaust being the final impetus for the 1948 ‘creation’ of Israel.
    That said, the non-Jewish Semites, dubbed ‘Palestinians’ ALSO deserve to remain in their own homeland on a co-equal basis with Israelis. They are both ‘people of The Book,’ following their own separate-but-different versions of monotheistic, Abrahamic religion.
    I believe that it is to America’s credit that we support Israel. It is also one of the reasons that America is despised by many countries in the Arab-Muslim world. (Indonesia is home to the most Muslims in the world and Indonesians aren’t Arabs…Turk’s [Eurasia] are not Arabs, nor are Somalis [Africa] nor are Uighurs [China], just in case there’s a mistaken belief that all Arabs are Muslims, or that all Muslims are members of the Arab [=Semitic] race…just as not all Irish are Catholic, nor are all Catholics members of that Celtic race).
    Perhaps its America’s legendary (whether mystical delusional unearned hypocritical undeserved self-serving justifiable earned and/or an anachronistically vestigial) policy, to “root for The Underdog.” Maybe it’s our evangelistic democracy-spreading which sultans kings sheiks lingamwallahsemirs dictators and strongmen all fear and dread. Maybe it’s jealousy of a way of [American] life that doesn’t exist any longer, given the demise of a consumptive middle-class. Maybe it’s a world that views America VERY differently than how Americans and America and its policymakers pursue choices that will always face resistance, both from without as well as from within. In any event, Israel has its sh!t together in a way that most of its neighbors and enemies do NOT. Given a choice, I support Israel vs its foes.
    No country is perfect, and the recent destruction in Gaza is horrific. But my advice to the Gaza Rocketeers: if you stop your rocket-shelling of Israel, you won’t get bombed and strafed and killed. Easy, huh?
    It’s Friday Oct 24th and the NYC Ebola news is everywhere. Here’s my contribution to calming the hysteria about a very serious but hard to catch disease: that bowling alley, The Gutter, that Dr. Spencer visited before he became symptomatic, is closed for a thorough disinfection and will re-open as “The E-Bowl-a-Rama.” Or how’s this: as a 70-year old male with one of the too-many Agent Orange cancers, my problematic prostate isn’t what it used to be, meaning lots of trips to the bathroom every night…diagnosed as “pee-bola.”

  3. “Agreee or not, I always start with firmly believing that History OWES a Jewish homeland to the Jews, based solely on what “God’s Semites” have suffered down through the ages, with The Holocaust being the final impetus for the 1948 ‘creation’ of Israel.”

    I disagree categorically.

    Nobody owes Jews anything; nobody owes anybody in this world anything; whether an individual or a collective, one earns one’s place in the world by honest behavior and respect for one’s fellows.

    The notion that Jews have been uniquely made to suffer “down the ages” is a ludicrous meme that is belied by the facts. Moreover, Jewish scholars such as those assembled by David Biale, who edited “Cultures of the Jews,” provides a reality-based rendition of Jewish history “down the ages” in sharp contrast to H. Graetz, whose focus was on Jewish victimization even as he airbrushed Kabbalah and other mystic practices of Jews that offended Graetz’s sensibilities. Those zionist leaders most active in the period 1917-1948, such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, Louis Brandeis, Frankfurter, Baruch, were deeply immersed in Graetz’s ideologically-driven history of Jews. It’s old and tired and has been replaced.

    Similarly, the chronology of the development of the Jewish colonization of Palestine indisputably demonstrates that the zionist project was culturally, institutionally, economically well-established almost a decade before 1945. Conflation of World War II with “creation” of Israel puts the cart before the horse and is wildly historically, factually, inaccurate.

  4. comment: ‘I always start with firmly believing that History OWES a Jewish homeland to the Jews, based solely on what “God’s Semites” have suffered down through the ages, with The Holocaust being the final impetus for the 1948 ‘creation’ of Israel.’…

    You can believe what you wish, but history doesn’t give land deeds to Jewish interests where Arab villages have been for centuries. Jews are not entitled to Arab lands because of some ethnocentric meme that is spread within a religion, being “we’re owed this, or we’re owed that”. The sooner zealots stop believing this falsehood, the better it will be for entrenched pro-Israel opinions to move on and stop their occupation and settlement expansion.

    But seriously I have to say you’re position is weak. History should then owe Palestinians a state, so how about they resettle in Israel and we can redo this conflict throughout the next century? Do you think Jews should be an exception to the golden rule? Get your philosophy sorted out first and then come back to the grown-up debate, peewee.

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