JERUSALEM -- Since reports surfaced of an apparent chemical attack outside Damascus, Israeli leaders have called for an American response, both on moral grounds and as a warning to Iran over its nuclear program. But on Sunday, after President Obama said he would delay a military strike to obtain Congressional approval, a new message emerged from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government: Do not say anything.
Israel's ministers of defense and international affairs, who spoke out repeatedly last week, stayed silent on Sunday. Another member of Israel's security cabinet canceled a news briefing scheduled for Monday, citing the delicate situation. Mr. Netanyahu himself issued a brief, bland statement saying Israel was "calm," "self-assured" and "prepared for any scenario" before moving on to innocuous matters like wishing the world's Jews a "good and blessed year."
Behind closed doors, Mr. Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday that the situation was "evolving," with "delicate matters" that he was managing "with discretion and responsibility," and warned: "There is no room for private statements."
"I ask that you not act without consideration and irresponsibly toward our ally in order to capture a moment of glory," Mr. Netanyahu said, according to someone who was there and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "These statements do not serve the citizens of Israel."
Israel has a great deal at stake in the American debate. Beyond the threats by Syria and its allies that they would retaliate against Israel for an American strike, Israel is gravely concerned about America's waning influence in the Middle East. Israel sees Syria as a test case for Mr. Obama's credibility in enforcing "red lines," given his promise to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
At the same time, Israel has a powerful American lobby with bipartisan strength that could be uniquely positioned to help the White House shore up support in Congress.
Yet there were no outward signs on Sunday that Israel would attempt to influence the outcome, and numerous experts on the Israel-American relationship said it would be deeply dangerous to try.
"It would be a mistake to overplay the Israeli interest," said Itamar Rabinovich, who was Israel's ambassador to the United States and also its chief negotiator with Syria in the 1990s. "It's bad for Israel that the average American gets it into his or her mind that boys are again sent to war for Israel. They have to be sent to war for America."
Another former ambassador, Sallai Meridor, who served in Washington during the Iraq war, said Israel should share its analysis but not give advice, particularly if the debate breaks along party lines, as often happened during the Bush years. "The line may be hard to see, but you know if you crossed it," Mr. Meridor said. "For a small nation like Israel, bipartisan support is a strategic asset."
Both Mr. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, have mentioned Israel's needs as one justification for an attack on Syria. But some in Washington have already raised the specter of retaliatory missiles raining on Tel Aviv, as they did during the Persian Gulf war, as a reason not to strike. Michael B. Oren, Israel's current ambassador to the United States, rebuffed that argument Sunday, saying in an interview, "Nobody can allege or assume that because of us America should not act." Beyond that, Mr. Oren said, "the general disposition is not to be involved in this vote."
A spokesman for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobby, said Sunday that the group "won't have comment for now." Another advocate for Israel in Washington said people were waiting to see the White House strategy for the vote and how the debate unfolded before deciding what to do. Part of the hesitation comes from Jerusalem's ambivalence about what outcome it prefers in the Syrian civil war.
"The only thing that is clear is that Israel will take the heat either way," a senior Israeli government official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of Mr. Netanyahu's directive. "If we remain on the sidelines, it will be seen as defiant criticism of President Obama. And if we don't, it will be seen as interference. There is nothing we can do to come out clean."
While Israel and its advocates seemed paralyzed by Mr. Obama's move, analysts here generally condemned the decision to wait for Congressional approval, saying it weakened American leadership in the Middle East and made it more likely that Mr. Netanyahu would order Israeli military action against Iran on his own. Several experts said it was a significant setback, after months in which Jerusalem and Washington had seemed more in accord on the Iran question.
"The punch line is that the more that Israel perceives the U.S. as hesitant, the more Israel will be pushed to deal alone with the Iranians, something that the U.S. really did not want," said Michael Herzog, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "People ask, 'If this is the case on a relatively simple thing like striking Syria, how will they act against Iran?' It deepens the question marks."
Ari Shavit, a columnist for the left-leaning daily newspaper Haaretz, said that Israel and others in the Middle East were being left with a "feeling of orphans," wondering "if there is still a reliable parent in Washington who is really committed, who understands what's going on and who is willing to act."
Dan Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, attacked Mr. Obama's speech announcing that he would put the Syria question before Congress as "a very serious diplomatic and political fiasco reminiscent of the Carter days," and said the enemies of Israel and the United States -- especially in Tehran -- were "gloating and celebrating."
"In Israel there is a lot of worry about whether we can really count on the United States," Mr. Gillerman said. "The behavior of the U.S. and what it projects over the last few weeks has cast a very dark shadow and very serious doubt over that."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.