As the U.S. builds an international coalition against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, Israel has a stake in the outcome of the fight but its role is restricted.
Israel in recent days has reiterated its support of U.S. efforts. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, telling him Israel is willing to help out, if invited to do so, “taking into consideration sensitivities” and U.S. needs.
“The truth is, Israel would love to be in the coalition,” said Paul Pillar, a former U.S. national-intelligence officer for the Middle East who, now a senior fellow at both Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies and the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence.
“And that would strengthen even more, if it could be done overtly, their argument that they are a strategic asset to the United States,” he said.
But it’s an invitation the U.S. isn’t likely to extend.
“Because of the well-known politics of the Middle East and the continued high salience of the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, any Israeli involvement in multilateral efforts in that region tends to be counterproductive,” Pillar said, explaining that Israeli involvement could, as during the Gulf War, alienate Arab coalition members.
This wouldn’t be the first time Israel has been absent from a coalition at war in the Middle East.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States assembled a coalition of nearly 40 countries, but made what writer Bernard Reich calls a “diligent effort” to distance Israel from joining—even when Saddam Hussein threatened to “burn half” of Israel.
“Although Israel likes to sell itself as a strategic asset to the United States in the 1991 Gulf War, it was seen largely as a liability because the fear was that by including Israel, it would break up this otherwise broad-based Arab coalition,” said Max Abrahms, professor of public policy at Northeastern University.
Even after Saddam Hussein launched a series of missile attacks on Israel, Washington declined to share information that would have enabled Israel to retaliate.
“Washington did not provide Jerusalem with the IFF code, the International Friend or Foe code, so that Israel was unable to respond militarily to Iraq,” said Abrahms, referring to electronic codes that enable air traffic systems to identify “friendly” aircraft.
To compensate for what writer Scott Lasensky termed "friendly restraint," the U.S. sent Israel Patriot missiles that may or may not have deflected incoming Scuds and gave Israel $650 million in emergency aid beyond the $3 billion it already provided annually.
This isn’t to say that Israel did not contribute anything to the war against Iraq, writes Mitchell G. Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. Bard notes that Israel provided the U.S. flack vests, gas masks, sandbags and “detailed tactical intelligence on Iraqi military activities.”
Now, as the a new coalition decides who will do what in the fight against IS, Reuters has quoted an anonymous Western diplomat who said Israel is providing the United States with satellite surveillance and information on Western citizens who have either joined ISIS or could stage attacks in their home countries.
“Israel does know Syria, does know about Syrian air defenses,” Abrahms said. “Israel has success in eluding Syrian air defenses, so perhaps it could help Washington with some of that intelligence.”
Defense News quotes an Israeli defense source who said that Israel could possibly conduct “simultaneous” airstrikes in Syria with the primary concern of preventing Hezbollah from obtaining Syrian weapons.
“It would be in Israel’s interest to be seen here in this country as being cooperative and helpful with regard to the effort against ISIS,” Pillar said, “and for it to become knowledge here in the United States that Israel was being helpful on this front would tend to help them politically. Anything that Israel can do to strengthen its long-standing argument that it is a strategic asset to the United States would be in its interest politically to try to promote.”
At least one Israeli official thinks Israel should be a “major pillar” of the coalition against ISIS.
In a radio interview this week, opposition leader and Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to make peace with the Palestinians.
“Had Netanyahu and his minister behaved differently” and negotiated with the Palestinians in chief Mahmoud Abbas in a “satisfactory” manner, “Israel would be a part of the coalition,” Herzog said, adding “it is Netanyahu who has excluded Israel from the anti-ISIS coalition by failing to seriously negotiate with the Palestinians.”
IS threat to Israel
Israeli security officials say they believe about 10 Israeli Arabs have joined the IS fight and could stage terror attacks if they return to Israel. Officials also worry jihadists groups will use these recruits to gather intelligence on Israel to support future attacks.
But most Israelis don’t believe ISIS poses any urgent threat, says writer/historian Marc Schulman, who in recent Newsweek article questioned how a group “whose weapons of choice are jeeps mounted with machine guns” could do any harm against an army possessing “the most advanced tanks in the world.”
“To most people, the fear of Hamas restarting the war in a week is much more immediate,” Schulman told VOA.
Nor does Schulman share Pillar’s belief that Israel wants to join the coalition.
But that doesn’t mean Israel couldn’t be drawn into the conflict in the future.
Tensions have heightened along the border with Syria in recent weeks as the Syrian conflict has approached—and occasionally spilled into—the contested Golan Heights. In late August, Al-Qaida-affiliated rebels seized the Quneitra border and abducted dozens of U.N. peacekeepers and forced dozens others to flee into Israel.
And there are unconfirmed reports that IS has set up sleeper cells in two southern Syrian towns near the border with Israel and Jordan.
“I guess the biggest potential scenario is if ISIS were to destabilize Jordan,” Schulman said. “Israel can’t afford to have Jordan turn into an enemy state.”
And if IS were to start making trouble in the Golan Heights, Schulman says Israel would most definitely have to intervene.