Having declared a caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria, the Sunni jihadists of ISIS may now pose a threat to the kingdom of Jordan. If they do, Israel will feel its own interests would be directly threatened, and could ultimately intervene.
Watching the Arab Spring degenerate into sectarian slaughter, Israel has sought to protect itself from the chaos, and, above all, avoid being sucked into the tribal, religious, and sectarian conflicts that have been eroding the Sykes-Picot borders and are now dissolving the “countries” established after 1918.
However, the victories of ISIS, its thrust southward, and its open threat to overthrow Jordan’s King Abdullah could change all that. If the ISIS danger to Jordan becomes real and present, Israel may feel compelled to respond.
“Our first challenge is to protect our borders. Extremist Islamic forces are knocking on our doors,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a conference at Tel Aviv University recently. His proposed response: building a fence along the full length of Israel’s border with Jordan, insisting on a security presence in the West Bank as part of any future peace agreement with the Palestinians, and building a regional axis against ISIS, including by strengthening Jordan.
Israel has a history of acting to preserve Jordan’s territorial integrity. In the Jordanian civil war in 1970, Israel acted to deter regional enemies of the Hashemite monarchy contributing to its collapse.
Now, as then, Jordanian stability is a strategic Israeli interest for obvious reasons, not least its location and its pro-Western orientation. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that Israel’s national interest dictates an intense concern with Jordan’s survival and has made it clear that Israel is ready to do whatever it takes to defend it.
The significance of Jordanian stability should not be underestimated as a strategic Western interest. Stable allies are not exactly thick on the ground in the region, these days, and the remaining few should be protected zealously. That means a number of things: sealing Jordan’s borders from returning ISIS fighters—and Jordanians are the largest foreign contingent among the jihadist groups in Syria—and strengthening Jordan’s economy, already weakened by the flood of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the loss of cheap energy from Egypt.
The Israeli prime minister could be looking beyond the ISIS threat to Jordan to the possibility of a broader alliance able to face the threat from extremist Sunni and extremist Shia Islam: “It is upon us to support the international efforts to strengthen Jordan, and support the Kurds’ aspiration for independence. Jordan is a stable, moderate country with a strong army that can defend itself, and it is especially due to this that these international efforts are worthy of supporting it. The same is true for the Kurds: They are fighting people that have proven political commitment and political moderation but they’re also worthy of their own political independence.”
Israel does not want to be an actor in intra-Arab strife. It knows that if it has to take this role, then the diplomatic terrain will only become more difficult for the US and its regional partners. But the destabilisation of a country that shares with it a 250-mile border, not to mention a peace treaty, just can’t be accepted by Israel.