Watching Tigers Fight: ISIS, Hamas…and Israel

An ISIS attack on Hamas may seem puzzling, but it serves enough regional interests to merit looking beneath the surface events.

Three Mideast political organizations that have historically been inclined to resort very quickly to violence, if not indeed to prefer violence, to achieve their foreign policy goals are Sunni fundamentalist ISIS, Sunni secular (relatively) Hamas, and Israel under Likud or Likud-style leadership in coalition with Jewish fundamentalists. Now that open violence has broken out between the two Sunni groups, one cannot help wondering what the behind-the-scenes role of the Netanyahu regime might be in this bizarre Mideast strategic triangle.

If ISIS is indeed the fundamentalist Sunni jihadi faction it claims to be, what could it possibly hope to gain by attacking Israel’s main “domestic” enemy in the Palestine that Israel, the PLO, and Hamas share? ISIS’ attack on the Damascus Palestinian camp seems to make a mockery of any ISIS claims to be defending Sunni Islam, though history offers plenty of precedents for extremist factions of revolutionary movements attacking their less extreme colleagues in the midst of battling their revolutionary adversaries (e.g., the Bolsheviks during the February Revolution). Is ISIS more concerned with seizing sole ownership of “Sunni revolution” than with its presumably existential battle against Damascus and Baghdad?

Or is ISIS in fact dancing to someone else’s tune? Whatever the truth of the matter, attacking Hamas distracts Hamas from its own existential battle against Israel. Attacking Hamas also gives Iran one more reason for opposing ISIS, and further alienating Iran seems a dangerous tactic for ISIS…unless it has reason to anticipate countervailing support from elsewhere.

Given Saudi ambivalence, the deep commitment of Iran in support of Iraqi Shi’a, and the valiant resistance of the Kurds, Tel Aviv–a firm believer in the efficacy of violence–might well calculate that a Sunni jihad will never succeed in doing more than spreading violence across the Arab world, leaving Israel free to watch and benefit from the collapse of all those who challenge it. In particular, the mid-term prospects for Iran are sobering: a prolonged and expensive sectarian conflict that Riyadh will do whatever it can to aggravate. Tel Aviv may also calculate that the longer-term outcome of ISIS success will be a Turkish-Iranian clash, given the increasingly radical Sunni posture of Ankara. Such a clash would enhance the regional military domination of Tel Aviv faster than almost any other imaginable scenario.

Given a foreign policy based on strength rather than accommodation, what could be better than a war pitting one’s enemies against each other, leaving the homeland untouched? History teaches the danger of such a shortsighted policy, but when do leaders ever learn any lesson from history aside from the lessons confirming their own personal biases? Might Netanyahu, obsessed as he seems to be with Iran, calculate that aiding Sunni jihad will serve to pin down Iran in endless internecine Muslim conflict, leaving Israel free to “sit on a hill watching the two tigers fight?”

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