JERUSALEM — With Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's announcement Tuesday that the United States has "moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take," the possibility of an American military strike against Syria is being talked about as a virtual certainty in Israel.
Israelis today were mostly preoccupied by the opening of the school year and with preparations for the Jewish New Year, which takes place in a week. While maintaining that routine, however, Israelis flooded the nation’s post offices that act as gas mask distribution centers. Up to four times the average number of people went to pick up masks between Sunday and Tuesday.
The suburbs of Damascus, where Secretary of State John Kerry said an "undeniable" chemical attack killed hundreds of people last week, are just 40 miles north of the Golan Heights on Israel's border with Syria.
In a strongly worded statement Monday that appeared to presage an as yet undefined American military engagement in Syria, Kerry said: "What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality... The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity."
Israel expects that a "limited" American attack is now inevitable, in what many here are referring to as a "punitive but not decisive" strike in reaction to the use of chemical weapons, which President Barack Obama last year defined as an American "red line" that would draw an inevitable response.
With the clouds of war gathering, Israel finds itself in an unusual predicament: while geographically at the center of any possible altercation, and the target of threats of retaliation should America strike Syria, it remains uninvolved in any military planning.
Israel's government is in a state of heightened preparedness. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security cabinet for two extraordinary meetings on Monday and Tuesday, and said in a statement that "the State of Israel is ready for any scenario. We are not part of the civil war in Syria but if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us, we will respond and we will respond in strength."
A high-level delegation headed by Israel's national security advisor, Gen. Ya'acov Amidror, was dispatched to the White House on Monday, where talks on Syria and Iran were held with Amidror's American peer, Susan Rice.
In fact, Iran, one of Assad's few remaining allies, has captured a central role in the escalating crisis. In a bluntly worded threat, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of Iran’s parliamentary foreign policy committee, warned that "the flames of any act of military aggression against Syria will engulf Israel."
Russia, another ally, also warned that any "attempts to bypass the Security Council" would result in "new suffering in Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries of the Middle East and North Africa," in the words of foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
Israel's Home Front Command appeared to be readying itself for uncharted waters. A previously scheduled army exercise was set to take place on the Golan Heights later this week, and it was announced that an unplanned drill would take place at one of Israel's northernmost airports, in the town of Rosh Pina.
The chance of direct repercussions for Israel, however, are considered slim.
"Assad knows that a direct hit on Israel would trigger very serious repercussions that could even threaten his hold on power,” said Ronny Daniel, Channel 10's veteran military affairs analyst. “Syria may attempt retribution through a terror attack abroad, or through Hezbollah, using Lebanon as a cover. But if he involves Israel, the price will be much higher."
Israel's border with Lebanon also heated up in the past week when missiles fell on Israeli territory launched from an area controlled by Hezbollah, a militant group supported by both Syria and Iran.
Observers here expect Israel will receive advance notice before any military intervention in Syria.
Israel Army Radio military analyst Tal Lev-Ram cautioned Israelis not to fall prey to nonchalance. "We have to remember that everything is on the table," he said. "It is important to prepare. The assumption of Assad's rationality is not more than that — an assumption."
Echoing this more prudent approach, retired Col. Eshkol Shokron, who commanded the Israeli army's Golan Division until his retirement last August, said that various figures "have said there will consequences in Israel, and I wouldn't dismiss that. We absolutely have to take it into account the possibility that a massive western strike against Syria completely change the scenario vis-a-vis Israel."
He told GlobalPost reprisals aimed at Israel could originate either with the Syrian regime or with the rebels.
From the beginning of the Syrian civil war, he said, "it was clear there were three possible endgames. One, outside intervention — which will not necessarily end the conflict in Syria; two, an internal agreement among the Syrian factions; three, a decisive victory by of one side."
The third option, he clarified, "I don't see as a possibility. This can last for years."
"It is a big question mark," he said.