By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“Israel defense minister says he prefers Daesh to Iran in Syria,” proclaimed Iran’s pro-regime PressTV. That sounds pretty bad. Other headlines were more nuanced. RT said the comment amidst “Iran’s terror infrastructure is greater threat to Israel.” Israel’s Ynet also got the comment, which was made at the (Institute for National Security Studies) INSS conference at Tel Aviv University. His comments were framed around the logic that “Jihadists don’t have the capabilities” of Iran.
The INSS conference may not have helped, since they tweeted “If I have to choose between Iran and ISIS, I choose ISIS”. The Washington Post called it a “bold statement” by the hawkish defense minister and illustrated the growing “divergence” with the US.
When one reads the overall speech the odd statement seems to make sense. “There are achievements in the fighting against ISIS – led by the US…ISIS is suffering serious defeats in Iraq and Syria…We believe ISIS will be eventually defeated territorially after the blows it has been suffering, and in light of the attacks on its oil reserves.” Basically it’s like the choice FDR made in 1941 after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Reasoning that Japan was the far weaker and less of a threat to the world, he concentrated on defeating Germany.
In the war against ISIS, which 64 countries in the world have joined a coalition against, Israel is portrayed as the odd-man out. Ironically the issue of Israel and ISIS has been in the news lately as it was revealed ISIS fears Israel “the most.” In December the ISIS leader Baghdadi even warned “Jews and Israel” of impending doom. Now there are rumors ISIS is trying to penetrate Jordan and is recruiting Palestinians, even infiltrating Gaza and that of course it is in Sinai. Some fear Israel could be dragged into war with it. Hurriyet revealed that many Palestinians were detained in Turkey for trying to join ISIS.
So what was the defense minister thinking. Precisely the problem, he was thinking but should not have been saying out loud this bizarro statement sure to stoke views that Israel somehow tolerates ISIS. Already Iranian media were linking the statement to Israel’s “support” for Syrian rebels on the Golan border. Since ISIS burst on the scene there has been a janus faced view of it in the Middle East. Some of the same Arabs who hailed its initial successes also claimed it was “created by Mossad.” This conspiracy pops up from time to time. Iranian commentators who support the regime have claimed Israel is behind ISIS, including Iran’s former Iranian minister of intelligence, Heydar Moslehi.
Considering all that, and the headline grabbing “gotcha” media, it seems the former General Ya’alon walked into a minefield.
That leaves us to look at the logic of his statement. Why might Israel’s defense community actually “prefer” ISIS? The assessment that ISIS is losing is one reason. ISIS is a known quantity. It is purely evil, but its extremism actually makes it predictable. There is no moderate face of ISIS, no bifurcation, no discussion of its “military wing” and its “moderate wing.” Its simplicity and brute extremism and total devotion make it a clear enemy. Iran by contrast is a much more complex enemy. ISIS is hated on the international stage, whereas Iran is making friends and influencing people. Iran is “coming in from the cold” whereas ISIS is being chipped away. Iran itself also prefers ISIS in a sense because ISIS was an invitation for Iran to claim to be fighting “terrorism” and to ally itself with the West. Iran’s influence has increased due to ISIS. There is reason to suspect that Syria’s Assad also preferred ISIS, as did Russia, because it allowed for the intervention and the total crackdown on the Syrian rebels who could be labelled as “like ISIS.” ISIS has become that kind of foil. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas of being “like ISIS“, even though Hamas is not ISIS obviously. He even thinks that the rise of ISIS will aid Israel in its work with moderate Arab states.
I’ve argued that many countries claim to be fighting ISIS but actually use it for their own ends.
Iran is more dangerous from an Israeli point of view because Iran arms Hezbollah on the border with Israel. Iran also has long range rockets and has been working on nuclear weapons. Iran has influence with Islamic Jihad and off-and-on with Hamas. So the known quantity of ISIS is less dangerous to Israel than the unknown actions of Iran. This makes sense in other contexts. Nazism was easier for the Western democracies to defeat than Communism. Even though both Nazism and Communism were responsible for mass killing and both of them threatened the world when under the command of those like Stalin, the fanaticism of Nazism made it implode to some extent.
In the end Israel has no choice anyway. ISIS will be defeated, but it will give birth to other mini-ISIS extremist groups. Iran will continue marching from strength to strength and continue to be a much larger threat to Israel. While Sunni Jihadist extremism threatens Israelis in a sense, the organized power of Shia Iran and its proxies pose a larger danger due to their organization.
On a moral level, no one can possibly prefer ISIS.