Ian Black writes: On a ridge high above the Golan plateau, the telltale antennae and golfball radomes of an Israeli surveillance station point north-east towards Damascus. In the valley below, minefields, barbed wire fences and a blue UN flag mark the frontline between the two most powerful armies in the Middle East. Behind it is a country in the throes of civil war.
Round the clock, from its perch on Mount Avital, the Israeli army’s unit 8200 eavesdrops on Syria, a former bastion of stability that is now crumbling along with other old certainties about the region. It is simple enough, say, to monitor the communications of an armoured division or track a MiG fighter squadron, but far harder to understand the calculations going on in Bashar al-Assad’s head. “Tanks are the easiest thing to follow,” says a veteran intelligence officer in Tel Aviv.
Ora Peretz lives in a kibbutz founded when Israel conquered the Golan Heights in 1967 and runs a cafe selling cherries, coffee and cold drinks. “We see terrible things on TV about what is happening in Syria,” she said, as a group of tourists peered across no-man’s land at the ruins of Quneitra. “But it’s quiet here. People say Assad might try to do something desperate. But I know we are ready if he does.”
The potential fallout from a disintegrating Syria is not Israel’s only worry. Last month’s election victory for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and jitters about unrest in Jordan have raised troubling questions about the country’s peace treaties with two of its immediate neighbours. In Lebanon, the third neighbour, Hezbollah – armed by Iran and Syria – is seen as a permanent challenge to Israel’s regional dominance. Israel’s once close relations with Turkey are in ruins.
Official discourse in Israel frowns on the romantic phrase “the Arab spring“. The reference point is more Tehran 1979 than Berlin 1989. In government offices the preferred terms are “awakening” or plain “unrest”.
Politicians do use a seasonal metaphor, but a far chillier one. “For us it is an Islamist winter,” says Ronnie Bar-On, chairman of the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee. A colour photograph of Auschwitz above his desk is a bleak reminder of what still makes many Israelis tick.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud prime minister, likes to describe the Middle East as a “tough neighbourhood”. Ehud Barak, his defence minister, once compared Israel to a “villa in the jungle” – a phrase that smacked of colonialism and racism. In recent months both have warned of the danger of Iran going nuclear and hinted at a pre-emptive attack to stop it – and maintain Israel’s atomic supremacy. But developments closer to home are deeply unsettling. Israel’s relations with the Arab world and its strategic position in the Middle East have reached “a new low”, in the words of Itamar Rabinovich, a leading historian of the Middle East and a former ambassador to the US. [Continue reading…]