As the Obama administration ramped up its war against the Islamic State group last week, I was visiting Israel with a bipartisan group of 12 leaders from Washington think tanks. During meetings with a variety of current and former Israeli government and military officials, as well as our counterparts from think tanks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, we discussed the security challenges facing our respective countries. Some of what I heard was expected; but other things were more surprising.
Israel faces real threats in every direction. Its primary concern remains Iran and the prospect that the United States will sign a bad nuclear deal with Tehran. Israelis also know the terror of indiscriminate attacks, as rockets during this summer’s war with Hamas reached as far as Tel Aviv, despite the largely effective Iron Dome missile defense system. And there is the latent but looming threat from Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has reportedly amassed more than 100,000 rockets.
But what of the threat making headlines in the United States, the Islamic State group and other armed Islamist groups? My Israeli interlocutors were surprisingly dismissive of this threat. One official even told our group, using an alternative name for the militant organization, “Your president has called ISIS a cancer. It is not a cancer; it is only a small rash.”
I was shocked – but witnessed a different story on the ground.
As our group stood atop Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, we heard a huge explosion. Moments later, a pillar of smoke rose from the town of Quneitra, just over a mile across the border into Syria. It is hard to know who was responsible for the attack, as Quneitra came under the control of the Islamist terrorist organization Jabhat al-Nusra last month. But with explosions like this common only a few miles from the border, it is easy to see how these groups could pose a direct threat to Israel. Sounds like more than a minor rash.
The reality is that Israel must balance a wide range of security threats in the region. As a country the size of New Jersey with some neighbors who are hostile to its very existence and other neighbors who harbor terrorist organizations intent on its destruction, Israel’s security perspective is based on the very real challenges of living in such a dangerous part of the world. One can read of these security threats from within the safe walls of a Washington think tank, but visiting the country gave me a concrete understanding of the daily dangers the country and its people face.
Perhaps the United States has something to learn from this perspective. Israel cannot afford the luxury of an exclusive approach to one security issue that allows other threats to fall through the cracks – rather, Israel has to find a comprehensive approach to balance the myriad security concerns in its neighborhood. Even as the United States escalates its campaign against the Islamic State group, we must also keep a proper focus on all the threats we face in the region.
At the very least, Washington should pursue balanced strategy toward these two major threats over the coming months. First, as nuclear negotiations with Iran progress, we must ensure that any deal includes the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, resolution of all possible military dimensions, and compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Agreeing to a bad deal that falls short of these standards would be worse than achieving no deal at all – and doing so would leave Israel with limited options.
Second, we must take seriously the threat of the Islamic State group and other armed Islamic groups in the region. An expanded air campaign in Syria is a step in the right direction, but the United States should also provide arms to help opposition groups fight both the Islamic State group and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. Whatever the United States or its allies think of the Islamic State group, the analogies of a cancer and a rash share one thing in common: The tendency to spread if not adequately dealt with early.
It is understandable that Israel remains predominantly occupied with the Iranian threat, which is existential. And the United States should do everything in its power to either achieve a good deal or instead agree to no deal at all. But we must also make good on our promise to defeat and destroy the Islamic State group in both Iraq and Syria. Ultimately, whether the Islamic State group is a cancer or a rash, a stable Iraq and a post-Assad Syria are in the interests of the United States and our Middle Eastern allies – including Israel.