WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM -- Two weeks ago, as extremist Sunni fighters poured over Syria’s border into Iraq, Israeli government officials maintained a practiced silence in public, largely declining comment on the territorial advances of ISIS into major cities and over international lines.
Privately, however, the Israeli government deliberated over the implications of ISIS’s advancement as relevant to the security of Israel in the short-term and – in the long-term – to America’s ability to deliver on its security guarantees.
Israel’s national security leadership watched as Iraqi security forces, trained over the course of five years by the US military, “literally left their shirts on the ground and fled” when faced with a fight, one such senior Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post.
Bearing witness to the crisis from the sidelines, Israel “observed the effects of US-trained Arab forces in Iraq and, from that, has learned lessons on proposals for the Jordan Valley,” the official said.
Last December, during an aggressive push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, US Secretary of State John Kerry proposed a security plan that would ultimately remove the IDF from the Jordan Valley – a natural borderland between the West Bank and Jordan that serves as a strategically vital security buffer, according to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, from aggressive state and non-state actors alike.
The plan, which would replace the IDF with an international force trained by the United States, was based on months of research conducted by US General John Allen, who earned his reputation on security training in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The qualifications of Allen, who most notably served as commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, are not lost on Israel’s leaders, who have expressed their concerns in recent days to their American counterparts.
The message: If Sunni security guards would not fight ISIS soldiers in Iraq in service to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite government, then a US-trained Arab force in the Jordan Valley will not fight fellow Arabs to protect the Jewish state.
"These are two distinctly different situations," State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said in response to Israel's criticisms on Monday. "The comparison with Iraq is simplistic, and not relevant to the ideas that General Allen is developing in the security dialogue with his Israeli counterparts, which we have deliberately not shared with the media."
A senior US defense official told the Post that comparing the Iraqi army to the Palestinian Authority is like comparing apples and oranges.
"The ISF is an army — a legitimate army," the official said. "The PA faces completely different threats altogether, and its a completely inappropriate comparison to make."
Israeli government officials making the comparison are "simply selecting facts to support their predetermined position," and cherry-picking, the official continued, while adding that ISIS poses a regional threat acknowledged by the Obama administration.
The Pentagon reacted passionately to Israel's criticisms, defending its own and the track record of Allen throughout his decades of service to the US military and its counter-terrorism efforts.
"Without getting into the details of the work General Allen has been doing on the peace process," said Rear Admiral John Kirby, press secretary for the Pentagon, "I can tell you there is no other officer — active or retired — in whom Secretary Hagel places more trust or more confidence when it comes to understanding this part of the world and the dynamics of counter-terrorism."
He added that, "From Iraq to Afghanistan, General Allen has not only lived it, he has led it. The results of his hard-won success speak for themselves."
But several other officials in Jerusalem listed a number of issues of immediate concern to the government regarding ISIS’ blitz in Iraq and the collapse of the US-trained Iraqi army.
The terrorist militia has surprised Western intelligence agencies – Israel's included – with its operational capabilities. The organization has seized territory in both Syria and in Iraq, including Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, in recent weeks.
But ISIS is not only interested in Iraq and Syria, one official noted, and a number of other governments in the region are worried the group will try to destabilize them as well.
One such country is Jordan, where ISIS took over a key border crossing with Iraq on Sunday. Should ISIS successfully spread to Jordan – a dominant fear within the Israeli government – than Israel’s security presence along the Jordan River will be reinforced for the foreseeable future, several officials said.
Palestinians considered Israel’s stance on maintaining IDF presence in the Jordan Valley to be a main sticking point during the last round of negotiations.
In those talks, Israel demanded it retain a military presence along the eastern frontier, both as a buffer against a possible invasion from the east and to prevent the smuggling of arms or terrorists from Jordan into the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority was also adamant that there be no Israeli security presence in a future Palestinian state, replaced as well by an “international force.”
According to a report from the US special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Washington has spent over $25 billion training and equipping Iraq’s army. That army nevertheless reached near-collapse this month when faced with a ”vicious and determined group” known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, one official described.
A similar dynamic unfolded in Gaza in 2007, when the Palestinian Authority’s security forces – which numbered some 12,000 men – melted away in the face of some 3,000 Hamas fighters, equipped with more “energy and motivation,” he added.
Israeli officials confirm to the Post that the government’s extensive concerns have been duly passed on to the Obama administration.
"We fully appreciate the security challenges that Israel faces," the State Department's Vasquez continued. "We’ve long said that the result of any peace negotiation needs to leave Israel more secure, not less. This is the principle under which General Allen and his team are operating."
US President Barack Obama continues a review of direct military strikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, according to his national security team, as the group strengthens in numbers and in funding. In his first comments on the growing threaton Sunday, Netanyahu only generally proposed weakening the group, adding that, “whatever I have to say on specific actions, I’ll obviously pass along to President Obama and the US administration in other means.”
The State Department also confirmed one phone call between Kerry and Netanyahu last week concerning ISIS.
“For many years, we have been told by our friends that we can pull our forces out of the Jordan Valley, and that Arab forces trained and funded by western security experts can provide the basis for our security,” another official explained. “We are a tad more skeptical than others of forces that are trained and equipped by friends abroad.”
“The situation in Iraq just reinforces our position,” he continued, “that ultimately, our security has to be based on our ability to defend ourselves.”