THE MILITARY and intelligence resources of some 60 nations, led by the US together with Russia and its allies, are currently devoted to the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Israel has been overlooked in this global effort, triggering contradictory reactions by its political leadership led by Benjamin Netanyahu, on the one hand, and its security and intelligence chiefs, on the other.
The complex Middle East situation is a source of satisfaction for Netanyahu, his defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, and the entire cabinet. The civil wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen have fractured the Arab and Muslim worlds and left them on the verge of the abyss.
The world’s attention has been diverted from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, enabling Netanyahu and his right-wing government, free from any serious international pressure, to further consolidate Israel’s grip on the West Bank and build more Jewish settlements, thus killing off any hope of a two-state solution.
Netanyahu and his cabinet are concerned about a French initiative to ask the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution that would call for the creation of a Palestinian state and denounce Israel’s settlement policy.
But they believe that even if such a resolution were to pass, the turmoil in the Middle East would turn it into a dead letter.
In that sense, the Middle East wars and its subsequent failed states are music to Netanyahu’s ears and, to his mind, vindicate his argument that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the region’s core conflict.
But, the free ride given to Israel in the fight against ISIS is paradoxically not good news for its military and intelligence agencies. Israel’s security chiefs find themselves frustrated that the country plays a very tiny role, if at all, in the global war against jihadi organizations, such as Islamic State and al-Qaida. Israel, by nature, does not like to be positioned as a negligible force.
In a sense, the current Israeli predicament is reminiscent of the position in which the country found itself during the Gulf war. The US built a global coalition to expel Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, and Israel wanted to be part of the coalition; but the Bush administration said no thank you because it feared that allowing Israel to play a role in the war would lead to a split with the Arab states.
ISRAEL REPORTEDLY planned unilateral actions to land forces in Western Iraq in a punitive mission to avenge the launching of 39 Scud missiles by Iraq at Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. But the US thwarted those plans by refusing to grant the Israeli Air Force the “friend-foe” codes that differentiate between friendly and enemy planes. Without them, the IAF could have found itself in dog fights with US and other fighter planes.
There were voices inside the government and the IDF who advocated ignoring US opposition and launching an Israeli military operation.
But, after a heated debate, opponents of the plan gained the upper hand.
This time, there is a consensus in Israel that it should stay out of Middle East wars. Israeli ministers and military chiefs are much more sober, and their aspirations are very modest.
They know it is useless to offer Israel’s service to the anti-jihadi global campaign. This realization occurs despite the fact that Israel’s military capabilities are much better than a quarter-century ago. IDF Special Forces, its intelligence community and the air force have the capability to carry out long-distance operations more effectively in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and even Iran.
While reason understands this, gut feelings do not. The mere fact that Israel isn’t involved in operations taking place not far from its border frustrates its military and intelligence.
The frustration is even bigger if one takes into account that Special Forces of the US, UK, Australia, Canada, France and Germany are carrying out secret missions in Syria, Iraq and Libya. None of these countries or their counterparts is unknown to Israel’s special units.
They were there and they train, exchange knowledge and cooperate with them. Although IDF commanders know very well that there is no justification to endanger troops in unneeded missions (when Israel’s security interests are marginal), from a professional point of view they are envious.
Frustrations and jealousy are not just soldiers’ whims. Military, and especially intelligence, ties are rooted in the notion of being relevant and they are considered useful and appreciated when they contribute to their counterparts.
If you can’t take pride in knowledge or capabilities, or can’t execute them, you are out of the game. There is no bigger humiliation for Israeli’s intelligence community than feeling superfluous.
One of the main pluses of Mossad and Military Intelligence in the eyes of foreign services (in addition to its determination, daring, creativity and out of the box thinking) is that they have always been useful in understanding processes and developments in the region.
Netanyahu: We will not allow Islamic State, or any other faction, to establish a presence near our borders
The many remarkable achievements of Israeli intelligence include its ability to obtain good information, which it has shared with friends or used to make new friends.
Close ties between the CIA and Mossad were cemented after Israeli agents managed to get a copy of a secret speech in 1956 by the Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev.
In 1966, Israeli intelligence agents persuaded a disenchanted Iraqi pilot to defect with his MiG-21, which was then a Soviet state-ofthe- art fighter. Both secrets were shared with the CIA and elevated US appreciation of Israeli intelligence.
In the last decade, Israeli intelligence made significant achievements in the battle to slow down Iran’s nuclear program while working with the US, Britain and other Western security services. Among them was the joint Israel-US operation, which installed the “Stuxnet” malware that damaged thousands of Iran’s centrifuges. In another joint mission, in 2008, Mossad and CIA agents worked together to assassinate Hezbollah’s “defense minister,” Imad Mughniyeh.
Recognition of Israel’s intelligence capabilities and the fear of Iran also have drawn Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain closer to Israel. They are ready to cooperate covertly with the Jewish state despite the fact they do not yet have diplomatic relations with it.
Israel understands that these are also the rules of the intelligence game when it comes to the war against Islamic State and other jihadi groups, and it tries its best to obtain as much information as possible on them. But the resources, capabilities and reach of its intelligence in the world of global jihad are limited.
Israel requires intelligence on global jihad for three main reasons. One derives from the fact that offshoots of Islamic State and al-Qaeda are parked on Israel’s borders with Syria and with Egypt. While Israel isn’t a target for jihadi groups, at least for the time being, it’s important to follow your enemies and decipher their intentions.
The second reason is that terrorists inspired by these groups have carried out attacks against Jewish targets in Europe. Israeli intelligence perceives itself also as “Jewish intelligence,” and feels that it has the responsibility to protect and thwart terrorist plots against Jewish communities worldwide.
The third motive is the desire to be relevant.
This is especially important because relations between intelligence communities are basically determined by mutual interests and “give and take.” In other words, when you have quality intelligence, you can trade it.
Intelligence that can be traded and exchanged means power, influence and prestige.
And, with that, comes the expectation that the trading partner will reciprocate. To remain in the big leagues, Mossad and Military Intelligence need good, accurate intelligence on Islamic State and other similar groups, not only on those near Israeli borders but those far away, as well.
In recent years, Israeli intelligence agencies have founded special units for that purpose, which are using all measures available to glean information. But the coverage is not sufficient, and a lot of work is still to be done. \ Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman
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