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Israel in a Middle Eastern china shop

Calling on leaders to hold their tongues about Kurdish independence and military assistance to Jordan

During the past three years Israel has responded to the Arab Spring and to the “great unravelling,” as its sequel is commonly called, with commendable caution. But more recently, in response to the remarkable success in Iraq by the Jihadi organization ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), there have been indications that that caution is being abandoned. Several Israeli spokesmen have offered aid to Jordan should ISIS try to attack the Hashemite Kingdom and Prime Minister Netanyahu on Sunday stated that Israel should support the Kurdish quest for independence. It is imperative for Israel to return to the restraint of its original response to its tumultuous environment.

The massive changes in the region — the initial expectation for reform and democracy, the successive falls of Mubarak and Morsi in Egypt, the Syrian civil war, the overthrow of Gaddafi and the current anarchy in Libya, the failure of the Iraqi, Lebanese and Yemenite states — have presented Israel with numerous challenges but also with a few opportunities. Every state is naturally and legitimately sensitive to changes on its borders and in neighboring states. Israel was concerned by the impact of Mubarak’s fall and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power on its peace treaty with Egypt and on the situation in Sinai. It was equally concerned by the threats to the stability of the Hashemite regime in Jordan. The lingering civil war in Syria has generated a mixed response in Israel, with some policy makers and analysts arguing that Israel is better off with “the devil we know” (namely Bashar Al Assad) while others argued that it would be better served by his departure.

Israel’s response to the Syrian crisis has on the whole been very effective. Of all of Syria’s neighbors, Israel has managed to remain the least involved. It drew its own red lines, stated that it will interdict the transfer of advanced weapons to terrorist groups (mainly Hezbollah) and has acted several times effectively and discreetly to accomplish just that.

Israel was fully aware that in Syria and elsewhere it was walking a tightrope, that a minor incident in Lebanon, Syria or Egypt could easily escalate into a major crisis. It was equally aware that the new regional situation created new opportunities, that the moderate Arab states saw Israel as a potential partner against new common enemies, that in any event most of them view Iran as a greater (and a common )threat. Of course, as long as the Israeli Palestinian conflict persists, it is difficult for the moderate and conservative Arab states to cooperate openly with Israel and they prefer to do so under the table or behind closed doors.
But recent events in Iraq seem to have changed the equation. The Jihadi success in taking over large parts of the country in cooperation with other Sunni groups, the collapse of Maliki’s army, the American embarrassment, the emergence of a common American Iranian interest in stabilizing Iraq, the implications for Syria and the potential threat to Jordan created a new sense of urgency. And it was at this point that several Israelis have thrown caution to the wind, signaling Israel’s willingness to assist the kingdom in a potential confrontation with ISIS .

Needless to say, Israel relies on Jordan’s stability as an anchor of its own national stability. Twice in the past, in 1958 and in 1970 it acted to help the Hashemite regime in the midst of acute crises. Jordan knows that should ISIS try to cross its border, it can count on Israel’s help (and that help may not be needed since the Jordanian army may well be able to handle such a threat on its own), so why embarrass the Jordanians by providing ammunition to the regime’s domestic and external foes who accuse it of collaboration with and dependence on Israel?

The Kurdish issue is more complex. The Kurds in Iraq enjoy independence in all but name. This is accepted by the Iraqi government and by Turkey. The latter is concerned by the prospect of Kurdish statehood. In Ankara’s view it could agitate the large Kurdish minority in Turkey and undermine the country’s stability. Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds reached an understanding and as long as the Kurds do not announce statehood, their relationship with Turkey is quite good. At this point the future of the Kurdish region in Syria is open and potentially explosive. Washington, Baghdad and Ankara are all worried by the prospect of a Kurdish decision given the potential disintegration in IraAll Postsq to seek statehood.

Israel does not need to add its voice to this conundrum. It has a long history of cooperation with the Iraqi Kurds and an obvious support for the idea of another non Arab entity in the region but there is no need to add its own voice to the confused choir and step on American and Turkish toes and those of friendly Arab moderates who have no love for the Iraqi regime but are worried that the disintegration of one Arab state could generate a landslide.

It is high time for Israel to think through the potential ramifications of the changes in the region for its own standing un the region and to ask itself what can be done on the Palestinian front in order to enable it to work more closely and openly with Arab partners. But until this is done, let us go back to the constructive caution of the past three years.

About the Author
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador in Washington, is president of The Israel Institute in Washington DC; He is affiliated with Tel Aviv University, New York University and The Brookings Institution