Golan Heights, Israel Apple orchards and orderly kibbutz seem peaceful amid a lush green landscape barely a few kilometers from the border with Syria. From certain high points Syrian villages are within sight.
Israeli commanders warily watch Bashar al-Assad’s forces in mortal combat with the rebels. They observe the brutal civil war and worry about the spill over. Fire has come from the Syrian side at least five times over the last two months, but Israel has not retaliated, pretending largely not to notice.
You can sip coffee and try to absorb the greater meaning of living on the edge from Mt. Bental. A café and a gift shop situated on an army lookout post may seem bizarre. That a local kibbutz maintains it for the Israeli army may seem even more so. But this is life in Israel – soldiers, reservists and civilians cooperate and co-exist in a tight embrace in a thin, tiny country to face the bigger dangers.
Israeli tanks are returning from the south after the recent “operation” in Gaza – the second in four years – back to their positions in the Golan Heights, a strategic bit of land snatched by Israel from Syria back in 1967 after the Six-Day War. It was subsequently annexed in 1981 and provides a buffer of sorts.
The ceasefire with Hamas may hold in the Gaza strip until the next barrage of rockets, but what about Israel’s northern and northeastern border with Syria? Peace is no longer a given after 40 years of relative calm.
Whether Assad will go is not in question – the question is when. Israeli assessment is that the situation is irreversible. Whoever comes to rule Syria will have a direct and immediate impact on Israel’s security.
There is a likelihood the small villages across the border may morph into “Al Qaeda” outposts, as every kind of radical group plays in the bloodbath that is Syria today. On a recent visit by a group of Indian journalists organized by the American Jewish Committee, an Israeli general talked about it with the utmost calm while adding that Assad is probably is grateful to Israel for not taking advantage of the current vulnerabilities.
Without going into the compelling but competing narratives of why and how Israel landed in what seems a perpetually hostile dynamic, it is easy to see that it is surrounded by hostile neighbors and there is no strategic depth of geography.
When the recent fire from the Syrian side seemed to target Israeli army vehicles, the commander decided to give Syria the benefit of doubt. It is unclear whether it was rebel fire landing mistakenly on the wrong side or a deliberate provocation to get Israel involved, thereby creating a larger conflagration in which all can play for the local benefit.
So far the Israeli generals have exercised caution, returning with small fire “just to say hello” and to let both the Syrian rebels and the Assad’s army know they should be careful. As a desperate move, Assad can also hit Israel because it is “always a good story.”
The biggest worry for the Israeli military is Assad’s firepower getting into the wrong hands. Syria has chemical weapons, which if dislocated and seized by any shade of fighters would spell disaster.
Israelis from the left to the right agree there is nothing spring-like in what is currently going on in the Arab world. It only means more uncertainty and more hostility. Those who cheered the Facebook/Twitter-aided gatherings can watch the rise of 50 shades of radicalism. The US has no overarching view of how to shape events in the Middle East and that’s no consolation to those who live here.
Secular Arabism is in retreat throughout the region because it didn’t deliver. The battles raging in various Arab societies are not necessarily between democracy and autocracy but between modernity and tradition. The Shia-Sunni sectarian divide is determining politics more than ever before. Israeli analysts say it has become completely about religion.