It is a landscape with which Jewish history is all too familiar. Here, in the flatlands abutting the Tigris and Euphrates, Jacob fell for Rachel, Jonah warned of approaching calamity, and Ezekiel saw a valley of bones come to life, as 26 centuries of intensive Jewish creation, crowned by the Talmud, unfolded.
Now, however, as its Islamist secessionists unsettle the Middle East and bewilder the entire world, Iraq seems to concern the rest of the world more than it concerns the Jewish state.
The serial beheadings of Western hostages were obviously major news in Israel as they were elsewhere, especially when it turned out that one of the victims, journalist Steve Sotloff, was a dual American-Israeli citizen.
Even so, as diplomatic jockeying intensified toward an American-led war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Israel seemed the one party whose natural location was on the margins of the approaching confrontation.
Of course, in terms of diplomacy, Israel’s place was firmly in America’s fold.
On Iraq, Israel fully shares the new American resolve to confront ISIS, and in fact feels vindicated by it. In Binyamin Netanyahu’s circle, Barack Obama’s decision to fight in Iraq signals the demise of the latter’s original vision as presented in 2009’s Cairo Speech.
Israelis, including many well to the left of Netanyahu, saw Obama’s initial Middle Eastern rhetoric as dangerously obsequious to militant Islam.
As seen from Jerusalem, Obama’s subsequent effort to reach a rapprochement with Iran was an extension of the same attitude which, in Netanyahu’s eyes, offered to Islamists – in this case the Shi’ites – overtures that they did not deserve, and would in due course abuse.
The same went for Obama’s treatment of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who hoped to be for the Sunni world what Khomeinism was for the region’s Shi’ites. Obama appeared more impressed with former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s democratic election than with the autocracy he was cultivating once in office – before he was removed last year by the combination of street protests and a military coup.
Set against this backdrop, Obama’s reluctant return to Iraq is seen in Jerusalem as vindication of the general scepticism with which the Israeli Government greeted the so-called Arab Spring since its inception four years ago.
The confrontation with ISIS is forcing the US to quietly abandon the political utopianism it had previously preached. Instead, Washington is remapping the Middle East along the fault-line Israel had drawn earlier, the cleavage separating fundamentalists from pragmatists.
This is not to say that the maps fully overlap. In Israel’s reading, the many differences and hostilities among Islamist fundamentalists become marginal when it comes to the threat they pose to Western civilisation. In this view there is one thread running through Iran’s Ayatollahs, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraq’s ISIS, Gaza’s Hamas, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah, because they all share a conviction that the rise of Western civilisation in recent centuries represents a historic aberration, and that those who do not share their Islamist beliefs are fair game.
The US and most European countries avoid this conclusion, treating Iran – which they believe is slowly changing and can be lured into changing even more – as an interlocutor and possible future counter-weight to the other extremists.
Still, on ISIS all agree.
The organisation, whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared his intention to ultimately “march on Rome”, is seen as a threat in every important respect: theologically, socially and militarily. Commanding a moderately-estimated 20,000 troops and sporting American-made artillery and armour captured from the escaping Iraqi army, ISIS threatens to destabilise the entire Middle East and to radiate worldwide.
Even so, as of mid-September America’s efforts to harness Middle Eastern governments to its assault on ISIS were failing to take off – even after a 26-nation summit was hosted in Paris by French President François Hollande.
Jordan promised “support” but said expressly it would not supply troops for an attack on ISIS. Saudi Arabia said it would train “moderate Syrian rebels,” but also failed to commit troops. Turkey went further in its abstinence, saying it would not allow US aircraft to use its airspace in attacking ISIS, citing concern for Turkish hostages held by the organisation.
The bottom line of all this is that the aerial attacks that the US has promised to launch have received much rhetorical backing in the Middle East and considerable practical cooperation from various Western countries, from France to Australia. Yet no one for now seems prepared to complement the approaching airstrikes with an attack on the ground.
Moreover, Damascus said it expected Washington to request permission before attacking ISIS within Syria’s borders, a statement that was quickly backed by Moscow. The US, for its part, responded that if attacked by Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries it would destroy them.
Israel is above this fray.
The Jewish state, though part of ISIS’ coveted conquests, is expected by no one to actively join a fight that is meant to appear as a pan-Arab affair. Officials in Jerusalem have said Israel will help with intelligence and in other low-key ways, but the IDF is taking it as a given that as long as ISIS remains removed from Israel’s borders, Israeli forces will not be actively fighting it.
Israel’s antennae are directed at Gaza, south Lebanon, and the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, all flanks on which Israel can find itself embroiled in skirmishes in the blink of an eye.
Geopolitically, however, Iraq is close and the dynamics its civil strife is touching off are followed by Jerusalem with great interest, because they are reshaping assorted government’s priorities, and by extension, attitudes toward Israel.
The most notable among these is Saudi Arabia. With King Abdullah making a rare public call for Western governments to join the battle against ISIS and also warning that the organisation is targeting not only the Middle East but also the West, Riyadh clearly fears that the Kingdom’s future is at stake. The same goes for Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Egypt, though it has less reason to feel directly and immediately threatened by ISIS, sees ISIS’ rise and success as a stimulant and inspiration for its own Muslim Brotherhood.
These anti-Islamist Arab governments now find their interests overlapping with Israel’s. This trend became apparent during the recent fighting in Gaza, when Cairo effectively took Israel’s side and imposed on Hamas ceasefire terms that the Palestinian Islamists had initially opposed.
Indeed, anti-fundamentalist Arab governments now find themselves close to Israel while at loggerheads with much of Iraq, Libya and Yemen, and almost all of Syria – whether the part ruled by ISIS or the part ruled by Bashar al-Assad.
All these governments have one more common denominator: bad blood with Barack Obama. The American President’s tacit encouragement of Egypt’s Islamists, and his active role in chasing Hosni Mubarak from office, were not forgotten in Arab capitals, just as Israelis have not forgotten Obama’s public criticism of Israel while calling for a Muslim-Western rapprochement at the 2009 speech in Cairo.
Now that speech and its vision are an anachronism, so much so that President Obama is scrabbling to manage a rapprochement with the Arab governments he previously antagonised – the very ones he now needs in order to attack the latest scourge emerging from Islamism and the Mesopotamian heartland.