JERUSALEM — Israelis were questioning whether the U.S. is committed to wiping out neighbor Syria's chemical weapons Sunday, a day after President Obama announced he was seeking congressional approval for military action.
With the U.S. Congress in recess until Sept. 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday told the public not to let down its guard.
"Israeli citizens must also know that our enemies have very good reasons not to test our strength — they know why," he said during a Cabinet meeting.
Although Netanyahu did not explicitly mention Obama's decision during the meeting, he sought to tell Israel's neighbors that "Israel is calm and self-assured" and to assure citizens that "we are prepared for any possible scenario."
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.
The delay in a possible airstrike — an attack had been expected as early as this weekend — has provided Jewish Israelis hope that the two-day Rosh Hashana holiday, which begins Wednesday at sundown, will not be marred by rocket attacks and the mass call-up of Reserve forces. However, it also leaves them wondering when, or even if, the Americans will strike.
"Rosh Hashana is approaching, and my son, a soldier, is stationed near the Syrian border, so I feel better that the decision has been postponed," said Sima Yaakov, the owner of an upscale women's clothing store in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. "At the same time, I'm certain that Assad will kill his people, so he needs to be ousted from power immediately."
Yaakov noted that while "even some Arab countries support international action against Assad," European countries "don't seem to be in any rush to stop the killing," she said.
In Sunday newspapers across Israel, many analysts called the delay a victory for Syria and other Arab countries.
"It may be that this was a necessary step from Obama's point of view. It may be that it was a wise decision politically, in an America traumatized by Iraq and Afghanistan. But the smiles on the faces of decision-makers in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, on hearing Obama's Saturday speech, tell their own story," Times of Israeli political analyst Avi Issachoroff asserted in Sunday's paper.
Even if Congress agrees to a limited military strike, it will be too late, wrote Yoaz Hendel in the daily Yediot Ahronoth. "The chemical weapons depots will be moved. The headquarters will be replaced. The targets that have been chosen will become empty buildings. The achievements of the possible attack will shrink, the bloodbath will remain."
In the meantime, Hendel wrote, Israel must live with an unstable Syria on its northern border and an Iran reportedly close to nuclear capability.
"Netanyahu was right when he sought to act independently. No one else will do the work. Israel needs to ask itself what it wants, not what America will do," he wrote. "Red lines are a matter of national pride; the international community has only flexible lines."
Contributing: The Associated Press