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Israel tense after US hesitation on Syria

Hundreds of Israeli's queued for gas masks, even as US military strikes on Syria were postponed.
Last modified: 1 Sep 2013 18:12
There has been a mass turnout at collection points throughout Israel for gas mask kits [EPA]

The streets of Jerusalem were uncannily quiet on Saturday evening, even after the end of Sabbath.

There was a sense of a country holding its breath; expecting missile strikes would take place within hours, and deeply nervous of the likely regional fallout.

On Sunday, in the government office which deals with foreign media, an official confessed to us that she had been so "wound up" throughout Saturday, that even after President Obama spoke, she had been unable to get to sleep.

Here in Israel, President Obama's announcement has provoked a combination of limited relief but also disappointment.

Yes, the immediate trepidation, the imminent possibility of retaliation from Syria, or even from Hezbollah in Lebanon, has been lifted. The tension has partially eased. But there is an acceptance that the military option has simply been postponed, not cancelled.

Taking no chances

In northern Israel on Sunday morning, around 1,300 people queued to collect government-issue gas masks from the distribution centre at Kiriat Motzkin. They could have waited to have the masks mailed to their homes, but they were taking no chances.

And a feeling of disappointment in some quarters stems from the perception that Obama has left himself open to accusations of weakness and hesitation - a characteristic which is particularly scorned here.

Israel is invariably hawkish when it comes to its own security. Israel won't confirm it, but it's an accepted truth here that at least four recent airstrikes against targets in Syria have been conducted by the Israeli military; operations aimed at preventing missiles being transported from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Threats are dealt with swiftly, decisions are made by the prime minister, and the democratic process is deliberately streamlined.

And in the background of all of this, is the question of what example this sets to Iran.

To Israel, no one action is ever regarded as an isolated incident. The principles of 'game theory' are followed and debated endlessly here.

In the last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Syria is Iran's "testing ground". The US response to Syria will inform and affect Iran's calculations on what might the international response be if Tehran continues to pursue its nuclear ambitions.

It will also inform and affect Israeli strategy.

For more than two years, Obama has urged Israel to trust America to take the lead on dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. But the President's perceived hesitation on Saturday night is creating a renewed sense among Israelis that when it comes to national security they cannot count on anyone but themselves.

If the likelihood of military strikes against Syria seems to be receding, the chances of Israel launching its own actions against Iranian targets only increase.