Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, on Sept. 1. (Abir Sultan / AP)
JERUSALEM — 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 Obama’s decision to put on hold potential military action in Syria. But media commentators on Sunday 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.”
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,” wrote commentator Yoaz Hendel, a former adviser to Netanyahu, in Israeli daily 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.