Can Israelis be wistful? It is not the characteristic we usually associate with them; more typically they are said to be tough, sweet, angry, thoughtful, demanding—not wistful.
Yet that is how I am finding many during my current visit, as I asked them to analyze events in the region in which they live and what to do about them. They look north to Syria and see the savagery, the massacres, the now over 14,000 dead, and the world doing absolutely nothing. "You get no help in this region if you are weak," one IDF general said to me. "It is a reminder to us of just what would have happened to us and could still if we were not strong enough to defend ourselves. But now we watch as these women and children are slaughtered and no one acts to save them. We can't, for all the obvious reasons; it isn't up to us, it's up to the Arabs and to Europe and to you. And you do nothing."
Enter wistfulness. The Israelis know their security is tied to the United States, and no country in the world roots with more energy than Israel for American success and American power. So when we refuse to use it, they shake their heads and wonder why, what does it mean, what are the causes, where does it lead? You could stop the killing in Syria in a week, they say. Think of the lives you would save—and it would hurt Iran and Hezbollah. What is Washington thinking? And of course they wonder what is the meaning for Israel if its champion and key ally thinks itself lacking the power to stop this mass slaughter. They read some of our official statements, and our leaks about how hard it would be to do anything useful in Syria ("the air defenses are so strong" and "the army is large and well-equipped") and shake their heads. About Syrian air defenses and the full capabilities of the Syrian Army they know a lot, and they know these statements are excuses for inaction rather than careful judgments backed by hard intel.
And then there is Iran. Here is a Washington story: When Gen. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Israel, the Israelis had found out that he was a Frank Sinatra fan and had two young soldiers with good voices sing “New York, New York,” just like after every Yankee game. When the Israeli chief of staff visited Washington, Dempsey arranged for a dozen young soldiers with fabulous voices to sing the award-winning song "Jerusalem of Gold" for him. This is a metaphor, one Israeli official told me: We do what we do well, but you guys are so much bigger, you have so much more: singers, bombers, missiles, everything. And when he spoke of Iran this official was, well, wistful: Israel can damage them, we can set them back, really. But if we had the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force, well, they would come to the table and give up their program or they would lose it in 24 hours. And, as with Syria, when Israelis read statements by American officials, and worse yet Pentagon leaders, expressing doubt about how much America could accomplish with a strike on Iran they shake their heads. After all, one retired general told me, if you really threatened Iran, if they believed Obama would strike, they would negotiate a deal, but with those statements you are undermining yourselves. I don't get it, he said, we all want the talks to succeed, maybe there would be a chance if they were deeply afraid you would strike. They are afraid of you, but they are not enough afraid of us, he added … wistfully.
Israelis do not see their world collapsing, just changing to present a few more threats. The Sinai was quiet for decades, as was the Golan, but who can say if they will be in a year or two? Will Hezbollah at some point decide to make a move against Israel, especially if the violence in Syria appears likely to bring down Assad? What does Israel do if terrorists strike Eilat from Sinai—nothing, even if there is loss of life, or do they violate Egyptian sovereignty and chase the terrorists across the border? The king of Jordan is managing well through the "Arab Spring," but if first Egypt and perhaps some day Syria come under Muslim Brotherhood control won't the Brotherhood seek more power in Jordan? Is the stability of the Gulf monarchies, which though not friends of Israel are not enemies either and share Israel's assessment of the Iranian threat, assured? Israel can handle these increased risks: A new border fence separating Israel from Sinai is being built; forces in the North are more alert; the IDF trains for all the various possibilities. But all these risks would diminish if the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah radical axis were seen to be losing and getting weaker, which brings them back to watching America watch Syria and Iran. Do you think after the election Obama might do more, they ask? What about Romney?
About the Palestinians relatively little is said—and never wistfully. None of the Israelis with whom I spoke expect President Abbas to sign a final status agreement, ever, leading some to be less outraged than you might expect about his expected formation of a "technocratic" or "national unity" government with Hamas. In the typical Israeli view, Hamas has Gaza and Fatah has the West Bank and none of these Palestinian political shenanigans will change that in the foreseeable future. The stated purpose of the unity government will be to prepare for and hold elections; I met not one single Israeli official or former official who believes those elections will take place. So their shrugs about a new Fatah-Hamas accord reflect the view that things are going nowhere anyway and American hopes for progress in peace negotiations this year or next are foolish.
Israeli politics changed this year when Prime Minister Netanyahu formed a very broad coalition with about three quarters of the Knesset. That weakens the ability of small parties to hold him hostage, for he does not need their votes as he used to, and it means he would have considerable support for big initiatives. But the initiatives being talked about most seriously are domestic: reforming the law that excuses thousands of ultra-Orthodox young men from Army service, reforming Israel's political system, and bringing down the cost of living top the list. An initiative involving the Palestinians isn't impossible if it will make Washington and the EU feel better—releasing some prisoners, for example—and bring President Abbas to the negotiating table. But as Israelis believe nothing will happen at that table, these are more gestures towards allies than consequential peace moves. The Mahmoud Abbas who rejected Olmert's generous peace 2008 offer and who is currently negotiating with Hamas is not widely viewed as a very likely peace partner.
The other big initiative is of course Iran, and the possibility of an Israeli strike is on everyone's mind. Israelis, who lived through wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, Scud missile attacks in 1991, and Hezbollah rocket assaults in 2006, joke about foreigners who call and ask them if it safe to visit in July, or August, or September. It's safe, it's safe, one Israeli explained to me that he tells such questioners. We are all here and we aren't going anywhere; Iran doesn't terrify us. But you know, he added, it won't be fun if we have to do this. You are the superpower. You should force them to back down or hit them if need be; for you it's not such a big deal, look at those B-2s and those huge bunker busters bombs you have and the size of your navy. And your president said they shouldn't have nuclear weapons, didn't he? Maybe we in Israel won't have to do it in the end; what do you think, is it possible, he asked … smiling wistfully.