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Wistful in Jerusalem

2:10 PM, Jun 15, 2012 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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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?

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