MOUNT BENTAL, Golan Heights—This mountaintop on the edge of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights offers a unique vantage point into how the complexities of the Syrian war raging in the plains below are increasingly straining Israel’s ties with the U.S.
To the south of this overlook, from which United Nations and Israeli officers observe the fighting, are the positions of the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda that the U.S. has targeted with airstrikes.
Nusra Front, however, hasn’t bothered Israel since seizing the border area last summer—and some of its severely wounded fighters are regularly taken across the frontier fence to receive treatment in Israeli hospitals.
To the north of Mount Bental are the positions of the Syrian government forces and the pro-Iranian Shiite militias such as Hezbollah, along with Iranian advisers. Iran and these militias are indirectly allied with Washington in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq. But here in the Golan, they have been the target of a recent Israeli airstrike. Israel in recent months also shot down a Syrian warplane and attacked weapons convoys heading through Syria to Hezbollah.
It would be a stretch to say that the U.S. and Israel are backing different sides in this war. But there is clearly a growing divergence in U.S. and Israeli approaches over who represents the biggest danger—and who should be seen, if not as an ally, at least as a lesser evil in the regional crisis sparked by the dual implosion of Syria and Iraq.
This gap isn’t just with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose recent public clash with President Barack Obama over the White House’s outreach to Iran triggered the worst crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations in decades.
“There is no doubt that Hezbollah and Iran are the major threat to Israel, much more than the radical Sunni Islamists, who are also an enemy,” said Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israel’s military intelligence who is slated to become minister of defense should the center-left Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog, unseat Mr. Netanyahu in Tuesday’s elections.
“Those Sunni elements who control some two-thirds to 90% of the border on the Golan aren’t attacking Israel. This gives you some basis to think that they understand who is their real enemy—maybe it isn’t Israel,” Mr. Yadlin added during an interview.
Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war. The frontier has remained mostly peaceful despite Nusra’s presence within a few yards of Israeli outposts, and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly highlighted that fact to depict the rebels seeking the end of his brutal rule as Zionist stooges.
“Some in Syria joke: “How can you say that al Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force,” Mr. Assad said in a January interview with Foreign Affairs magazine. “They are supporting the rebels in Syria. It is very clear.”
Israeli officials deny this, saying they don’t interfere in the Syrian conflict and have no contact with the rebels except to provide humanitarian assistance to wounded Syrians. “There is an understanding and there is a familiarity of the forces on the ground. I wouldn’t go the extent of calling it coordination. It is extremely tactical,” an Israeli military official said.
But the officials also stress that Israel views with mounting alarm the push southward along the frontier by regime troops and Hezbollah forces.
Frequent explosions and the thud of shelling could be heard this week from Mount Bental, just above the ruins of the Syrian city of Quneitra. A few miles to the north, an Israeli officer was wounded on Tuesday by what the Israeli military said was sniper fire from regime-held areas. Islamic State isn’t yet present in this part of Syria—its closest strongholds are dozens of miles away.
Israel’s border with Syria was the country’s quietest for four decades, as Mr. Assad and his father, President Hafez al-Assad, scrupulously observed the 1974 disengagement agreement. Instead, Damascus targeted Israel in Lebanon through Hezbollah, its junior ally.
The Syrian civil war that began in 2011 and devastated the Syrian army reversed that relationship, making Mr. Assad the dependent partner in his alliance with Hezbollah and Iran.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, is reluctant to endanger its powerful position in Lebanon by striking Israel from Lebanon itself and provoking a devastating war in response—something that explains its interest in a foothold on the Golan Heights.
In January, Israel signaled that it wouldn’t tolerate such a scenario, launching an airstrike that killed a general of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and several senior Hezbollah officials not far from here.
“Nusra is a unique version of al Qaeda. They manage to cooperate with non-Islamist and non-jihadi organizations in one coalition,” said retired Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former chief of staff for Israel’s defense minister. “They are totally focused on the war in Syria and aren’t focused on us. But when Hezbollah and Iran and others are pushing south, they are very much focused on us.”
For now, parts of the Golan frontier that are controlled by Nusra and other rebels are so quiet that Israeli children are brought on school trips to sightseeing spots near the fence.
Over the past two years, as fighting came close, some 1,500 Syrians have been allowed through that fence to seek treatment in Israel.
One of them, a 15-year-old boy who lost his right arm and most fingers on his left hand in an explosion two months ago, was fitted with a prosthesis and underwent surgery to restore the use of his left arm at the Galilee Medical Center in the coastal Israeli city of Nahariya.
“In school, the regime taught us that Israel and the Jews are our enemies. But they have been very good to me. It is a beautiful country,” the boy said a day before the Israeli army was due to return him to his parents in Syria.
In his hospital room, he proudly showed off how he can use the prosthetic hand to pick up a bottle of water to an Arab-Israeli woman who had befriended him, and who had been keeping in touch with his mother in Syria via Facebook.
Only about one-third of the Syrians treated in Israel, however, were women and children. An Israeli military official acknowledged that most of the rebels on the other side of the fence belong to Nusra but said that Israel offered medical help to anyone in need, without checking their identity.
“We don’t ask who they are, we don’t do any screening…Once the treatment is done, we take them back to the border and they go on their way,” he said.
Despite the momentary convergence of interests and the current quiet on the border, some Israeli officials and security analysts say they hold no illusions about Nusra and its ultimate goal of destroying Israel.
“It is just a matter of time before some of these Syrian rebels start launching attacks against Israel,” cautioned Eyal Zisser, the dean of the faculty of humanities at Tel Aviv University and one of the country’s foremost experts on Syria. “Nusra is al Qaeda. Maybe a little bit more pragmatic, but still al Qaeda.”
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