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MIDEAST: Lessons from the Karine A -Deja Vu All Over Again

WASHINGTON, Nov 6 2009 (IPS) - As Israeli Defence Forces munitions experts sorted through 300 tonnes of weapons found on a German-owned, Cypriot-operated cargo ship flying the Antiguan flag, Israeli politicians were sifting through the various talking points that could be offloaded from the vessel.

Israeli officials charged that the weapons, seized on Wednesday, were supplied by Iran and destined for Hezbollah militants.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry officials almost immediately began “consultations to determine Israel’s public relations stance in explaining the operation and its ramifications to diplomats and the foreign press”.

Under waning pressure from the Barack Obama administration to curtail settlement activity in the occupied territories, but nonetheless urged to “seriously” work toward a two-state solution to the festering Israeli- Palestinian conflict, vilified by the Goldstone Report and more determined than ever to marshal opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme, Israeli defence officials and politicians agreed that the Francop incident was another “Karine A”.

On Jan. 3, 2002, Israeli naval commandos intercepted a 50-tonne shipment of weapons, valued at 15 million dollars, in the Red Sea, 480 kilometres south of Eilat. Israeli officials claimed the weapons were en route from Iran to the Palestinian Authority.

Then, as now, Israel was being criticised for its harsh treatment of the Palestinians.

Then, as now, Israeli leaders were engaged in defending Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, urging the U.S. to either destroy Iran’s nuclear capability and potential or to acquiesce to Israel’s doing so in a preemptive strike.

Then, as now, Israeli politicians were determined to prevent the normalisation, or even moderate improvement, in relations between the U.S. and Iran.

In the aftermath of the events of Sep. 11, 2001, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was attempting to contain his right-wing coalition partners, who were insisting that he get tough on terrorists and reject once and for all the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Their demands were on a collision course with U.S. efforts to launch a “war against terror” and to forge an international “coalition of the willing” to support a U.S.-led retaliation against Afghanistan, in which Muslim states would actively participate.

Pres. George W. Bush complained to Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in mid-October that Israel’s harsh approach toward the Palestinians was “making it more difficult to keep the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition together” and impeding the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Israeli politicians debated how to mollify Washington. Peres proposed that Israel affirm its support for U.S. aims in the “war on terror”. Several cabinet ministers agreed that from then on, the Palestinian Authority should be depicted in the U.S. as “Israel’s Taliban”.

During the same period, members of the Bush administration also met with over a dozen visiting Israeli government officials, envoys and senior military officers, all of whom warned about the progress being made in Iranian nuclear research. Israeli policymakers and military intelligence analysts presented what they argued was incontrovertible evidence of Russian complicity in Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The Israeli visitors were assured that the U.S. would win its war against terrorism and that Israel would benefit from the new international order that would follow. Iran and Syria would be watched carefully, and Hezbollah and other groups fighting Israel would be added to the list of terrorist organisations.

But senior U.S. officials expressed concern that Israel might be trying to engineer the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. This not only could undermine regional stability but create friction between the U.S. and moderate Arab states, endangering the U.S. “war on terror”.

The fairly rapid routing of the Taliban in November by “Operation Enduring Freedom” was attributable in no small measure to factions of the Northern Alliance supported by Iran that enabled the U.S. coalition to expand its control of Afghanistan’s 250,000 square miles from a tenth to over a third in less than a week. Iran was among “six-plus-two” states that met in New York on Nov. 12, 2001, the day before the fall of Kabul, to decide Afghanistan’s future.

After the installation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, with Iran’s assent, Sharon and Bush had a “working visit” on Dec. 3-4 to discuss “the international campaign against terrorism and the pursuit of peace in the Middle East”. Although analysts expected little from the meeting, what emerged at its conclusion, in the wake of a spate of suicide bombings in Israel, was Israel’s place, at long last, in the frontline of the “war on terror”.

Bush granted Sharon unprecedented affirmation of Israel’s right to act both defensively and proactively in dealing with terrorists. Furthermore, the Bush- Sharon meetings fused (and perhaps obfuscated) the issues of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, providing Israel with the opportunity to use the “war on terror” to perpetuate its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.

It was the interception of the Karine A, however, that provided the link Israel needed between Iran and terrorism that would inspire Bush’s inclusion of Iran as a member of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address in late January, and Israel’s failure to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

As the Israeli narrative evolved, its focus soon shifted from demonstrating that the Palestinian Authority was stockpiling weapons to affirming Iran’s primary responsibility for the violence in the region. It was Iran that was responsible for Israel’s failure to achieve a peace accord with the Palestinians, or to subdue Hezbollah on its northern border.

During the Francop saga, Israeli talking points have shifted from the quantity of weapons – which varied from 60 to 1,200 tonnes) to Iranian violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1747 and 1701 that strictly forbid Iran from exporting or trading any form of weapons. Defence Minister Ehud Barak hailed the seizure as “another success against the relentless attempts to smuggle weapons to bolster terrorist elements threatening Israel’s security”.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, is now claiming that Iran is guilty of a “war crime” in providing the weapons to Hezbollah. Hezbollah has denied they were the recipient, and the fractious Iranian government has not yet issued a coherent or convincing response to the charges.

Meanwhile, the U.N. General Assembly has accepted the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Goldstone Report criticising Israel’s disproportionate use of force in Gaza, which the U.S. House of Representatives has denounced.

The Francop incident has already begun to fade from the headlines. The weapons found on it are being unloaded and securely stored. But like the Karine A, its most valuable cargo may be the ammunition for future battles in the war of words between Israel and Iran.

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