On Wednesday, the Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the Islamic State was an “unauthorized organization” in Israel, a statement that links the country more directly to the international fight against ISIS, a group that has taken over large swaths of land in both Iraq and Syria. But aside from that statement, the Israeli government has remained largely silent on ISIS, while its U.S. ally works to assemble an international coalition against the extremist group whose atrocities have horrified the world.
The statement arrives just one day after a video surfaced showing ISIS beheading U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff. The Israeli foreign ministry confirmed Wednesday that Sotloff was an Israeli citizen, as well as American. But despite Sotloff’s affiliation with Israel, senior politicians there have yet to publicly condemn the Sunni militant group for its violence.
Israel has avoided getting involved in the fight against ISIS for two reasons, experts say: because it does not see the group as a direct threat and because it is wary of involving itself in a battle that aligns with the objectives of the Syrian regime, a longtime political rival.
“Part of the Israeli security doctrine is not picking fights that it doesn’t want to engage in,” Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense and Democracies, a nonprofit policy research group, said. “We are not going to see blistering rhetoric out of Jerusalem in the way that we saw with Hamas during Operation Protective Edge.” For the past two months, the Israeli Defense Force has been battling Hamas militants in Gaza in a conflict, called Operation Protective Edge by the IDF, that killed more than 2,200 people.
During the conflict, Israel consistently used rhetoric attempting to undermine Hamas' legitimacy, and denounced its militants as “terrorists.” It has yet to use similar words against ISIS. The difference, analysts say, is that unlike Hamas, ISIS has not attempted to attack Israel.
During Operation Protective Edge, ISIS released a statement that said it was focused on fighting Muslims who “have become infidels.” “The greatest answer to this question is the Qur’an, where Allah speaks about the nearby enemy -- those Muslims who have become infidels–as they are more dangerous than those which were already infidels,” an ISIS spokesman on Twitter said.
“There is no reason to challenge ISIS if there is no direct threat,” Schanzer said. “Israel has seen the wisdom to stay above the fray as long as humanly possible.”
Max Abrahms, an expert in terrorism studies at Northeastern University, said Israel is following the lead of other Western powers when it comes to intervening in Syria. Like the U.S. administration, it has avoided intervention because it is trying to avoid propping up the Assad regime.
"They are struggling with the reality that the Sunni threat might be more dangerous than the Shia threat which for so many years they regarded as primary," Abrahms said. "It shows confusion and highlights the complexity of the situation. Israel doesn’t know with whom to side."
There is a growing suspicion among top Israeli security officials that ISIS could have cells within its borders, Schanzer said, which could push Israel to confront the ISIS threat more directly.
"There are Arab Israelis that left Israel to become members of ISIS," Schanzer said. "There is an attempt worldwide to start to crackdown on the recruitment pipeline that has been feeding ISIS."