JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister on Sunday tried to soothe a jittery nation unnerved by the standoff between the U.S. and Syria, saying that Israel is “calm and self-assured” and ready for “any possible scenario.”
Benjamin Netanyahu did not directly address President Barack Obama’s decision to put on hold potential military action in Syria. But media commentators and hard-line politicians criticized Obama for appearing indecisive, after signaling last week that a U.S. military strike was imminent.
While the government has urged Israelis to stick to their routines, the threat of hostilities in the region has caused widespread jitters. With the U.S. threatening to strike Syria in response to alleged chemical weapons use, many Israelis fear that Syria might retaliate by attacking across the border at Israel.
Crowds of Israelis have been lining up at special gas-mask distribution centers in recent days, and the military has deployed a series of missile-defense systems near the Syrian border and in the heavily populated Tel Aviv area.
“Israel is calm and self-assured. Israeli citizens know very well that we are prepared for any possible scenario,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet. “Israeli citizens must also know that our enemies have very good reasons not to test our strength. They know why.”
Obama has condemned Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, saying it crossed an American “red line” and signaling that the U.S. will be compelled to attack in response. But over the weekend, Obama said he would first seek congressional approval before taking any military action. The decision came after Britain, a key American ally, said it would not participate in an attack on Syria.
There were voices of criticism in Israel about the hold on a possible military strike.
Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett posted on his Facebook account Saturday evening that “the international stammering and hesitation about Syria prove once again — Israel cannot depend on anyone except for itself.”
Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a member of Bennett’s “Jewish Home” Party, went even further with his criticism, saying the Americans were being indecisive in the face of “genocide.” He also compared the world’s inaction to the West’s silence during the Holocaust seven decades ago.
“When there is a genocide, the response needs to be immediate,” he told the Army Radio station. “It’s clear the Americans know to destroy at least the chemical weapons and they are not doing that.”
Ariel said the delays sent a troubling message to “terror states” that there is no price to pay if they pursue dangerous weapons. The comments appeared to refer to Iran, which Israel accuses of pursuing nuclear weapons. In a separate Facebook posting, he said the Iranians are now “popping open the champagne” as they move closer to nuclear capability.
Ariel’s comments drew a rebuke from Netanyahu. During Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, he accused Ariel of “acting carelessly toward our ally, just to make a quick headline,” according to a meeting participant. The participant spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a meeting that took place behind closed doors.
Israeli media portrayed Obama’s handling of the crisis in a critical light. Channel 10 TV headlined their coverage “Obama’s zigzag,” while the Yediot Ahronot daily featured headlines like “America’s problem,” ”A step back,” and “Assad is celebrating.”
“Yes he can. But it’s not certain anymore that he wants to,” commentator Yoaz Hendel, a former adviser to Netanyahu, wrote in Yediot Ahronot about Obama’s desire to attack Syria. “Until the American Congress approves the attack (if it approves it), the chemical weapons stockpiles will be moved elsewhere. The headquarters will be replaced. The chosen targets will become empty buildings. The accomplishments of a possible attack will be reduced, the bloodbath will remain.”
Avraham Yarm, a resident of northern Israel, said Obama’s decision to delay a potential attack was disappointing.
“I think he’s lost initiative and he’s lost the element of surprise, and he’s losing, every day, credibility in the world,” Yarm said.