Jerusalem — You would think, given the number of headlines devoted to a possible Israeli or American air strike on Iran in recent weeks, that Israelis would be storming their supermarkets, stocking up on bottled water and other essentials, as they did prior to the 1991 Gulf War.
Yet other than a run on milk and bread in Jerusalem in anticipation of last Friday’s short-lived snowstorm, most Israelis seem to be taking the threat of a strike on Iran, and the war that would likely result, more or less in stride.
“My high anxieties are financially based,” said Harry Cohen, a Jerusalem father of two. “I feel too pressured from not meeting my mortgage, and other loan, payments and taking out new loans to cover the shortfall to have anxiety about vague, future, possible security threats.
“I’ll worry about it when it actually happens. I don’t know too many people who feel much different,” he said.
The public’s calm-if-watchful mood is clearly out of sync with Prime Minister Binyamin’s Netanyahu’s dire security warnings during this week’s visit to the U.S.
In his address to AIPAC, Netanyahu told the huge crowd, “In every generation, there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people. In this generation, we are blessed to live in a time when there is a Jewish state capable of defending the Jewish people.”
If there was any doubt that Israelis are in no rush to hit Iran militarily, they were put to rest by a March 1 University of Maryland/Dahaf opinion poll.
Only 19 percent of the Jewish and Arab Israelis polled favored a preemptory Israeli strike if the U.S. is against it. That number rose to 42 percent — still a minority — assuming President Barack Obama gave the go-ahead.
One-third (34 percent) asserted that Israel should not strike Iran, regardless of American support.
Asked what they thought the Obama administration would do if Israel unilaterally attacked Iran, only 27 percent thought the U.S. military would join the war on Israel’s behalf; 39 percent thought the U.S. would support Israel diplomatically but not provide military assistance.
When asked how long an armed conflict with Iran might last if Israel strikes its nuclear facilities, most predicted a long, drawn-out war: 29 percent thought it could last months, while 22 percent said it could be years.
The poll also highlighted how torn Israelis are about the outcome of a potential attack: 44 percent thought it would strengthen the Iranian government while 45 predicted the opposite.
In an essay in The Times of Israel, a new online publication out of Jerusalem, editor-in-chief David Horovitz examined the discrepancy between American Jewish fears on Iran and the reality in the Israeli street.
“Perhaps the concerned Americans have it right. Perhaps the bombers and the fighter jets are indeed about to head out,” Horovitz said.
“But if war with Iran is indeed about to begin, the usually perceptive Israeli public doesn’t seem to have picked up on it.”
Ticking off the other issues on the local agenda — sexual harassment, religious-secular tensions; developments in Syria — Horovitz said that the subject of Iran’s nukes “is on our minds, but it is not dominating our national agenda” to the exclusion of everything else.
If friends or family from the U.S. called to ask whether it’s safe enough to visit Israel now, Horovitz said, “we’d frankly be baffled by the question,” Horovitz said.
Larry Derfner, a columnist for the left-wing Israeli online publication +972, believes Israelis are more concerned about war than they’re letting on, and that the UM/Dahaf poll reflects this.
“I’ve been to Dimona and there are quite a few people who are scared they’ll catch the blowback,” Derfner said, referring to a possible Iranian strike on Israel’s nuclear complex.
Nor is there fear only in Dimona, Derfner insisted.
“In the Dahaf poll, 51 percent said a war with Iran could last for months or years. People are mainly afraid of retaliation.”
Fearful or not, Israelis spent the week preparing for Purim, an upbeat time when schools close for vacation and children — and many adults — walk the streets in costume.
As the temperature climbed after last week’s wintry storm, the mood in Jerusalem was unhurried and festive.
Capitalizing on the spring-like weather, Rosie Sharon, a student, and her friends Nir Kartaginer and Avraham Biton, both tour guides, opted for a picnic along a new bike trail in southern Jerusalem. Seated on a bamboo mat as cyclists and pedestrians passed by, they dined on Mediterranean vegetables and couscous.
Asked whether Israel should strike a preemptory blow against Iran, Sharon, an occupational therapy student, said she didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision.
“All I do know is that attacking another country is problematic. You never know what will happen.”
“War isn’t good for anyone,” said Biton, who lives in the southern coastal city of Ashdod, which is sometimes shelled from Gaza. “I don’t want to go into a bomb shelter.”
Eli Maimon, who recently opened an electronics store in Jerusalem, said he is also opposed to a military action unless absolutely necessary.
“I’m self-employed, and if there’s a war business will suffer. And honestly, I don’t think Iran will lob missiles at us. Why? Because I think at heart the Iranians don’t want a war any more than we do.”
Carole Caplan, a tour guide, expressed faith that the Israel Defense Forces can accomplish a mission in Iraq, but wondered out loud “whether it would be in Israel’s best interest or just looking for more trouble.
“I certainly think Iran won’t hesitate to bomb us, regardless of how many Arabs they would kill in the process,” Caplan said, sounding the most ominous note of the day.