Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have adopted a simple strategy for deflecting international criticism of Israel’s summer offensive, which killed more 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza: Tie it all to the Islamic State.
In his speech Monday before the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu invoked the Islamic State as emblematic of a boundless movement of militant Islamists whose end goal is “to dominate the world.” Netanyahu argued that his government’s targeting of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, is part of the same fight as a U.S.-led coalition’s effort to dismantle the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.
“When it comes to their ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS, and ISIS is Hamas,” Netanyahu said.
Scholars and analysts of the Middle East typically are aghast at such comparisons because they fail to take into account historical, sectarian, ideological and other key differences among the region’s many militant groups. Netanyahu offered no nuance, however.
“Everywhere we look, militant Islam is on the march,” he warned.
On social media, many Middle East-focused commentators, including Jewish analysts, either lampooned Netanyahu’s zinger-filled speech or dismissed it as hyperbole that’s intended to distract from a serious discussion of this summer’s lopsided, 50-day war. Israeli airstrikes killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, including some 500 children, and demolished about 18,000 homes, according to the United Nations. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers, six civilians and a Thai worker were killed.
Even the U.S. government, which generally defends Israel from international criticism, has found itself in the awkward position of trying, delicately, to distance itself from the kinds of comparisons Netanyahu made at the United Nations. When asked earlier this month whether Hamas and the Islamic State shared characteristics, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf struggled to find commonalities apart from the fact that both are U.S.-designated terrorist organizations.
“So, obviously, the brutality ISIS has posed across Iraq, across Syria, potentially elsewhere in the region and around the world is just different in nature, looks different, and the tools we use to confront that terrorism will be, then, different,” Harf said, before adding: “I’m not going to get into the business of ranking terrorist organizations.”
When pressed on the groups’ divergences, Harf said: “I would agree with you that I would not say that Hamas and ISIS have the same goals,” but Hamas has still “caused quite a bit of destruction and death, particularly in Israel.”
By the time Netanyahu had finished on Monday, he’d compared ISIS to the theocratic government of Iran, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Shabaab in Somalia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Mahdi Army in Iraq, as well as other militants in Yemen, Libya, India and the Philippines. He also likened the militant threat to “a cancer,” “a poisonous tree,” and the Nazi Party (except, he said, radical Islamists believe in a master faith rather than a master race).
“You know the famous American saying, ‘All politics is local?’” Netanyahu said. “For the militant Islamists, all politics is global.”
Netanyahu also used the Islamic State to warn against allowing Iran to become “a threshold nuclear power.”
“Would you let ISIS enrich uranium? Would you let ISIS build a heavy water reactor? Would you let ISIS develop intercontinental ballistic missiles?” Netanyahu said. “Of course you wouldn’t. Then you mustn’t let the Islamic state of Iran do those things, either.”