On Monday afternoon, June 9, the research director of Israel’s military intelligence corps appeared before an international audience of defense experts and policymakers at a conference near Tel Aviv and delivered an hour-long, rapid-fire outline of the strategic threats and opportunities facing the Jewish state in 2014.
Speaking in a terse, emotionless Hebrew, Brigadier General Itai Brun detailed a chilling catalogue of the region’s deadly arsenals and enemy alliances. His conclusion, unexpectedly, was that Israel is relatively secure. The reason: Deterrence. The cost of attacking Israel has been set painfully high. “None of the main forces facing us is interested in a major confrontation,” Brun said, “because they fear the prospect of escalation and destruction.”
There was, however, one exception: “Global jihad.”
Neither Brun nor his audience knew that in a few hours his thesis would be put to a live test in a pair of crises that would set all the regional players in motion, first in Iraq, then in the West Bank. The crises would also expose, more starkly than ever, the yawning gap in outlook between Israel’s security establishment and its political leadership.
Global jihad is one of four main “camps” that define today’s Middle East as Israeli intelligence sees it. The others are, first, the “radical axis” of Shi’ite Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad; second, the Muslim Brotherhood and similar nationalist-oriented Sunni Islamist parties; and third, the “moderate camp,” including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Three of the four camps pose challenges that are essentially manageable. Even Hezbollah, the radical Shi’ite militia, and Hamas, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, are committed to “maintaining the calm.” That’s because, in the words of Brun’s boss, military chief of staff Benny Gantz, speaking earlier at the same conference, “they’ve learned the price of attacking us.”
Global jihad is the wild card. “Deterrence works against state-like entities” like Hezbollah and Hamas, Gantz said. It doesn’t work against jihadists, because they have nothing to lose and a world to gain.
That, at least, is the consensus view of Israel’s intelligence agencies: the Middle East as a sort of three-dimensional chessboard. It’s not how the political leadership sees things, though. They’re playing checkers.
Benjamin Netanyahu has argued for years, in books, speeches and government policies, that terrorism is a single, seamless, worldwide phenomenon. Contrasting Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran with the madmen of global jihad is a distinction without a difference. Hamas and Hezbollah are merely Israel’s front in a world war that democratic peoples everywhere are fighting together — or would be if they had any guts.