The New Republic, January 21, 2002
ISRAEL AND THE FOREIGN PRESS
by Yossi Klein Halevi
In Israel, "Operation Noah's Ark," the January 3 capture of a ship carrying weapons bound for Palestine, was an epiphany. For many erstwhile doves, it shattered the illusion-still alive despite more than a year of intifada-that they could negotiate a demilitarized Palestinian state next door.
The rest of the world treated the news with a yawn. Italy's La Repubblica restricted its discussion of the ship to a sidebar within a front-page article about Yasir Arafat's confinement to Ramallah, entitled "The Sad Days of Arafat-President in Prison." Germany's Berliner Zeitung mentioned the ship under a headline about the Palestinian Authority's (PA) arrest of six extremists. London's Observer buried the story altogether. In much of the international press, Arafat's denial of responsibility-his solemn word that he knew operatives and manned by members of his navy-has been treated as a credible counterweight to Israeli claims.
Not even the televised admission by the ship's captain that the weapons were loaded near the Iranian coast, overseen by a Hezbollah agent, and bound for the PA - a textbook example of President Bush's definition of what transforms a local conflict into global-reach terrorism - convinced foreign observers that Israel had uncovered a Palestinian-Iranian-Hezbollah triangle. Few governments considered it disturbing that Arafat was using his pledged crackdown on terrorism as a cover to acquire weapons of terror aimed at civilians - dozens of Katyushas that could be used in attacks on Israeli towns and more than 2,000 kilos of high-grade explosives, especially c-4, more powerful than any explosive used in the car bombs and suicide assaults so far. Even the State Department-desperate to preserve what was once a peace process and is now barely a cease-fire process-reacted to the Palestinian captain's confirmation of Israel's accusations with the bland assertion that it was awaiting more conclusive proof.
In Israel, by contrast, the operation-conducted more than 300 miles off the Israeli coast-was treated as an epic. Israelis consumed every detail, from how the ship was tracked after its purchase last October, to its eight-minute bloodless takeover. In its first edition after the news broke, the newspaper Ma'ariv devoted 17 news pages to the story; commentators recalled the Entebbe rescue and the bombing of the Iraqi reactor at Osirak. "Just Like the Movies," exulted the headline of Israel's largest daily, Yediot Aharonot. One left-wing columnist complained that the newspapers resembled "victory albums"-a relapse into post-Six Day War arrogance. Yet Israelis weren't gloating; we were relieved: Despite our flight from Lebanon and our stalemated war against terrorism, we were still smart and daring enough to protect ourselves.
And the operation didn't only have a profound emotional impact on Israeli society; it had an enormous political impact as well. After the suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa last month, Prime Minister Sharon increased his demands on Arafat not only to impose seven days of quiet, but also to uproot Hamas and Islamic Jihad's terrorist infrastructure, and collect the vast quantity of illegal Palestinian weapons that violate the Oslo accords.
Recently, though, Shimon Peres had begun to erode those demands, implying that a reduction in violence alone was sufficient for resuming political talks. And a weary Israeli public seemed prepared to go along. Indeed, though the Israeli press has amply reported that Arafat loyalists-mostly Tanzim militiamen and members of Force 17, Arafat's personal guard-have initiated about half of the terrorist attacks of the last year, many Israelis continued to cling to a distinction between Arafat and Hamas.
No more. "Operation Noah's Ark" has quickly returned Israel's focus to infrastructure. Defense Minister and newly elected Labor Party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has warned that the relative lull in violence conceals a steady expansion of the terrorist infrastructure. Even the left-wing newspaper Ha'aretz has been forced to concede that "Arafat is preparing for a huge escalation, including the ability to equip hundreds of suicide attackers with explosives and to attack Israeli cities with rockets." And most Israelis now realize that to demand that Arafat dismantle Palestine's terrorist infrastructure is absurd: As this incident proved, the biggest terrorist infrastructure in the PA is the PA itself. And so the Oslo process has moved from ambitious negotiations over ending the conflict to pathetic negotiations over resuming negotiations to now, finally, the realization that there is no point in negotiating at all.
In delegitimizing Arafat, Sharon has the crucial backing of the army's general staff. Once a key bastion of Oslo support, the general staff's attitude has gradually shifted from skepticism over Arafat's intentions to public contempt. Following the seizure, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz overstepped his authority and declared that it was time for the government to reevaluate its relations with Arafat-implying that Israel should label him not merely irrelevant, but an outright enemy. "This smuggle attempt emphasizes and points directly at the Palestinian Authority intention to continue a strategy of terror and violence increasing and escalating over time," Mofaz said last week. Though he has rebuked Mofaz for political statements in the past, this time Ben-Eliezer refused to join the left-wing Knesset members who justifiably criticized the chief of staff for trying to publicly influence the government's agenda. And were it not for pressure within Labor, Ben-Eliezer would probably endorse Mofaz's position himself.
But the new mood goes deeper than mere loathing of Arafat. For the first time since Oslo, you don't have to be right-wing to question the wisdom of a Palestinian state segmented between the West Bank and Gaza, with Israel wedged in between. The arms seizure has negated the most basic assumption of the Oslo process: that a Palestinian state would be demilitarized and devoid of terrorist intent. Now demilitarization no longer seems feasible. And mainstream Israeli newspapers have published maps that could have been lifted from the settlers' anti-Oslo pamphlets of the mid-1990s, showing Israel's population centers within Katyusha range of Gaza and the West Bank-maps that show most of Israel as the equivalent of the Northern border town of Kiryat Shemona, the symbol of Israeli vulnerability to constant attack.
In my conversations about the ship with friends across the political spectrum, one question recurs: If this is what the Palestinians attempt now, with Israel in control of the borders and the seas, how will we enforce demilitarization in a sovereign Palestine? Barely anyone anymore even tries to provide an answer.