Israel has watched the expansion and entrenchment of ISIS in Syria and Iraq — along with the threats it poses to Lebanon and Jordan — with a strange admixture of concern, aloofness and detachment. The crumbling of central organs in existing states and the takeover of peripheral areas by armed extremist upstarts is, to Israel’s current leadership, just another indicator of the regional turmoil that engulfs Israel. This pattern, in their eyes, still does not touch upon Israel’s strength and viability as much as the nuclearization of Iran.
Nothing, however, could be more superficial or shortsighted. The factors behind the unfolding events in nearby countries not only affect Israel dramatically, they are not unfamiliar inside Israel itself. Unless policymakers delve deeply into the commonalities behind regional occurrences and use these insights to correct structural faults within the country, Israel stands in real danger of replicating the patterns in its immediate neighborhood.
The most facile way to look at the current maelstrom in the Middle East is to focus on the proliferation of heavily-armed radical Islamic groups bent on wresting control from relatively secular state authorities. Al-Qaida and its offshoots are, indeed, gaining ground throughout the region. But to highlight this outcome is to ignore the joint traits that have enabled the rapid takeover of these forces on the ground. All the countries in question share three features — porous boundaries, the loss of state monopoly over the use of force and intense communal grievances — which together mark them as failing states. These commonalities are not as remote from Israel as one would imagine.
The lightening emergence of ISIS has been facilitated, first, by the blurring of state borders. Clearly Syrian and Iraqi control of outlying areas has been compromised for quite some time, with local militias establishing strongholds well beyond government control. As the fighting has continued within Syria and the weakness of the central government has increased in Iraq following the American withdrawal, cross-border alliances have developed, allowing for the beginning of the redrawing of the map of the region. The unclear demarcation along the Lebanese-Syrian divide and the multiplication of dissident activities in the Sinai underline the ambiguity of state frontiers in other parts of the region as well (Yemen to the south and, most disconcertingly, Jordan’s eastern frontier, are but two additional examples).
Second, in all these instances — albeit in differing degrees — central control over the use of force has dwindled. This is especially true in Syria (where a violent civil war has raged for the last couple of years) and Iraq, where the tripartite division of the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein hasn’t allowed for the rebuilding of overriding state authority. In these and neighboring countries, armed challenges have abounded, humanitarian conditions have deteriorated rapidly and vicious skirmishes have become the norm.
Underlying these phenomena are pronounced group grievances based on distinctive religious, ethnic and communal affinities with broad internal and cross-border implications. This third feature — which calls into question the identification of certain groups with the state — helps to explain both the domestic turmoil and the transnational character of present processes in the region. This is especially the case when combined with the introduction of a mobilizing alternative (however temporary) in the form of a radical Sunni movement.
Taken together, the rise of ISIS and its duplicates in the environs spells the impending — if not actual — collapse of states carved out in the aftermath of World War One almost a hundred years ago. Indeed, the 2014 Fragile State Index published just this past weekend shows that Iraq (ranked 13) and Syria (ranked 15) are in the very high alert category for state failure. Egypt (#31) is flagged with others as a country with an alert and Lebanon (#46) with a very high warning. Nothing can be more destabilizing than the breakdown of the state system in the region.
Needless to say, these developments present new and extremely serious challenges for Israel’s security. Their importance, however, is far more profound: the roots of the unease in the region are also visible within Israel and should serve as a most vivid warning signal for the country and its leaders. The indeterminacy of Israel’s international frontiers since 1967 can no longer be treated with equanimity. The lack of recognized borders makes for constant challenges in the West Bank and on the Gaza front — an amorphousness which cannot be counteracted merely by superior force.
When armed militias taunt Israel — either by rocket attacks from Gaza or by forays in the West Bank — control over Palestinian militants remains difficult in the extreme. But when the monopoly over coercive activity is undermined by wayward Jewish groups (Price Tag extremists being the most visible both beyond and inside the Green Line), then the state’s internal security mechanisms are seriously affected. The spread of violence has, in fact, penetrated into Israel’s core and the government’s lackadaisical attitude towards this process has exacerbated the situation even further.
The escalation of Palestinian opposition to Israel’s continued occupation clearly lies at the center of ongoing tensions. At the same time, the grievances of the Arab citizens of Israel, subjected to considerable discrimination over the years and currently under attack through legal and other means, have also intensified nationality-based friction inside the country. Religious and ethnic tensions continue to abound. The state no longer commands the overriding identity of segments of its Jewish population. Indeed, the lack of correlation between identities and citizenship is particularly visible at this time.
In many respects, therefore, Israel is increasingly exhibiting many of the symptoms of weak states, which in surrounding countries have metamorphosed into state fragility or actual failure. The findings of the Fragile State Index for 2014 should sound warning bells throughout the upper echelons of Israel’s decision-making apparatus: Israel is ranked in the 67th place, in the high warning category. Its standing suggests that its state robustness is lower than Algeria (71), Tunisia (78), Jordan (83), Saudi Arabia (96) and, of course, the strongest states such as Finland and Sweden (178 and 177 respectively).
In simple terms, the Israeli state, long perceived as the most robust in the region, possesses fewer capabilities than frequently presumed. Its social, economic and political indicators — the main measures of state sustainability — point to serious problems on several scores. Socially, demographic pressures are mounting and group friction persists. Economically, uneven development and high poverty levels indicate the growing inadequacies of state policies. Politically, deteriorating public services, poor implementation of the rule of law, human rights concerns and rising questions regarding state legitimacy (including high levels of corruption, low government effectiveness and constant power struggles) have reduced trust in central government. Put together, both state capacities and the autonomy of the state from critical social groups (such as settlers, a small number of moneyed families who control large portions of the GDP, a few highly organized unions and certain religious groups) are faltering.
Israel must tackle these issues urgently and directly. To strengthen the state it should collect weapons and address violence at home; it must make a real effort to embrace all its citizens; and, above all, it has to demarcate its borders. Failure to do so will mean that it may quickly find itself not only confronting the repercussions of state disintegration in the region, but dealing with its ramifications at home. If ever there was a reason to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and move forward towards a different relationship with the stronger states in the Arab world, this is the most important and profound.