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Islamic State: Is Australia too worried? Israeli expert Professor Efraim Inbar thinks so

Are Australians too worried about the threat of Islamic State?

Political scientist Professor Efraim Inbar thinks so.

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On a visit to Australia, the analyst from the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies in Israel said, "I must say: I come here and I think the threat of ISIS is greatly exaggerated." 

"What can they do?" he asked of the Islamist group, which as well as fighting for control of territory in Syria and Iraq also masterminded the bloody attacks in Paris in November, killing 130 people. "It's Australians that are afraid of ISIS. 

"You are so far away and you are speaking of this ISIS threat. You know. Come on. Keep it in proportion."

Professor Inbar's comments raised eyebrows of guests at a lunch late last week organised by the Australia-Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. 


After all, Australia is active not just in bombing missions on IS targets in Syria but also in contending with the 150 or so citizens who have gone off to fight with radical Islamists in Syria and Iraq as well as the threat of homegrown jihadist terror inspired by IS. 

International affairs expert Paul Monk, who was also at the lunch, said later: "Curiously, given the deep concern about ISIS terrorism in the Western world, the head of one of Israel's leading think tanks was quite dismissive of the danger from ISIS." 

(IS, ISIS, and ISIL are acronyms for the same Sunni militant organisation.)

Commenting on the risk of Australian citizens radicalised by IS in Syria returning to commit acts of violence here, Professor Inbar said Australia should make sure they don't come back or they are arrested upon return. 

Professor Inbar may have a point about Australia's fear of IS. 

Before Tony Abbott was replaced as prime minister last year, his government's warnings about the so-called "death cult" were so prolific, one economist noted that the fear in the public may have actually hampered consumer activity.

In a 2015 Lowy Institute Poll, nearly 70 per cent of Australians surveyed said the emergence of IS in Iraq and Syria was a high risk to Australia's security in the next 10 years – and an equal share of those polled supported Australia's participating in military action against IS in Iraq.

By comparison only 20 per cent feared war between the US and China. 

Professor Inbar's views underscored a point of difference between Israel and Australia.

The chaos that has engulfed the Middle East since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, followed by the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, has seen the jihadist threat accelerate and spread throughout Western democracies like Australia. 

But it has also seen the armed forces of states in the Middle East disband or become dysfunctional, while Arab states grow less powerful.

Since "states are more dangerous than non-state actors", Professor Inbar noted, the chance of a large-scale war in the Middle East has diminished drastically.

Nevertheless, one Muslim country in the region has remained strong: Iran, posing a threat to the other strong country in the area, Israel.

And Tehran's support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah remains a problem for Israel, according to Professor Inbar. 

He expressed disappointment over the US's promotion of the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015. The agreement between Iran, UN Security Council Members, Germany and the EU aims to slow Tehran's nuclear weapons program, even as other aspects of the country's foreign and military policy remain untouched.

Professor Inbar said it was now unclear what sort of role the US would maintain in the Middle East as it focuses on the challenge from a rising China. 

In the Middle East, "there is huge concern about the direction of the United States". 

Discussing the US election year, in his opinion, "anything is better than Obama".

But Professor Inbar said that if US President Barack Obama proves to be a "historic trend" rather than a "historic accident" then "we have to adjust – all of us".

Although aware that the US arguably had to consider China a "first priority", it wasn't "wise for the Americans to leave the region to the Iranians".

If the US seeks an exit from the region, Washington should do it with a "big bang" and "hit Iran", the strategic analyst said.

"Fear is the best political currency in the Middle East."

Despite Professor Inbar's assessment, Western governments today, including Australia's and the US's, have shown a reluctance to become more deeply involved in the Middle East. That hesitation can be attributed to memories of the quagmire following the Iraq invasion, as well as the never-ending war in Afghanistan.

In 2013, Mr Obama refused military action in Syria after the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons. 

More recently, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last month turned down a US request for more military resources to fight IS.

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