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. Not surprising. Since Israel and Saudi Arabia helped set up ISIS with US support to wreck havoc in Syria. But never mind that now. Some long time Mideast observers have outgrown its training wheels and has become a full-fledged actor.

    In early October, Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former top humanitarian affairs official at the United Nations, delivered a keynote address at an annual State Department gathering of international humanitarian aid officials in Washington, D.C. where he suggested the US should negotiate directly with ISIS to deliver humanitarian aid.

    Millions of people now live under ISIS control. Starving them will not defeat the jihadists, and to deliver aid, the west needs to deal with those in charge.

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