The Israeli reaction to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons and to American dithering is interesting insofar as it reveals how the United States is perceived in the region these days. It also, like so much else about the Jewish state, defies easy characterization.
On one level, there is eerie calm. A former U.S. official tells me the top levels of the Israeli government are convinced that Assad is not about to make more enemies (especially one not hesitant to retaliate) by lashing out against Israel in the event the United States responds militarily to the use of weapons of mass destruction. It is ironic that the country that Western liberals insisted was at the center of all that ails the Middle East is now a wary witness to the chaos and violence in its neighbors’ despotic regimes.
Still, intellectual satisfaction that “linkage” is now entirely debunked and a stoic confidence that Israelis will come through this regional crisis as they have done before coexists with growing alarm among ordinary Israelis. Only 60 percent of Israelis have gas masks. There has been a run on gas masks, with reports of unruly crowds and even fist-fighting. (In true Israeli fashion, the Jerusalem Post reports solemnly that many have “attributed the preceding commotion to general Israeli impatience and intolerance for waiting in lines.”)
An American academic who has lived in Israel for years said in an e-mail to me that when an American strike seemed imminent, people in Tel Aviv were “panicking,” only to be temporarily calmed when President Obama announced no decision had yet been made on use of military force. He explained, “There are two kinds of fear here … the fear of the people on the street who’re worried that we’re going to get attacked, which most people know is VERY unlikely, and the fear of [those] who understand that the president of the United States is basically signaling to the world that there is no head of the free world, that the US can’t be counted on to stop Iran, either.” He concludes, “So, ironically, people are panicked about the wrong thing. What we should be dreading this week is not Syria, but Iran, because Obama is giving them a green light. THAT is the truly frightening piece of this.”
Indeed, the Middle East is acclimatizing to a post-United States era. The Egyptians ignore us. Saudi Arabia and Qatar arm the Egyptian military. Assad brazenly leaps over the red line. The Iranians proceed with their nuclear weapons plans. And most Israelis, if they haven’t already, are coming to the conclusion that it will be up to them to deal with Iran’s nuclear arms program.
Imagine for a moment how different this situation would be if Iran had a nuclear weapon. Iran would rule the roost, daring the United States to act while threatening to take out Tel Aviv — or Berlin. Iran’s nuclear capability would soon become a shield for every bad actor in the region. As chaotic as things are now, the current situation would look like a day at the beach compared to any conflict in which Iran could brandish a nuclear weapon.
Presently, however, Israel is in an enviable spot in the region. Israel’s government is stable, its people prosperous. But the Jewish state swims in a sea of violence and unchecked Islamic extremism. These days, the Palestinians are the least of their worries.