Netanyahu, standing by missiles seized on the Klos C (Tomer Appelbaum)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, holding a bullet and standing next to rocked seized from the Klos C. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Here and there during the live broadcast of the government propaganda event staged at the Israel Navy base in Eilat, the camera lingered on the face of Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz understood that the media circus surrounding the seizure of the ship carrying Iranian weapons had run its course over the weekend, which is why he took off Saturday night to make a previously scheduled visit to the United States. Eizenkot, a disciplined soldier, was required to take his place on the dock in Eilat, alongside the prime minister and defense minister. For a time it looked as if the deputy chief of staff would have preferred to be elsewhere, though perhaps it just seemed that way to this observer.

Within the General Staff, there are plenty of people who believe that the Israel Defense Forces went too far in trumpeting its success to the media. Senior officers told Haaretz in recent days that the operation, which the IDF dubbed “Full Exposure,” was “a nice intelligence and operational success, but what was being marketed to the public and the media as time passed after the actual operation was already inflated beyond desirable proportions.”

That impression was strengthened Monday, when matters moved from the IDF’s hands to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Eilat ceremony had Netanyahu written all over it. Netanyahu, to his credit, didn’t exhibit the same euphoria that he sometimes has after past successes, and made do with just a single pat on his own back. His speech was pretty short and serious. But somewhat disappointingly, it didn’t avoid preaching that the whole world is against us.

The prime minister, who was aware of the internal criticism over stubbornly holding a press conference five days after the Klos C was seized in the Red Sea opened with an attack on the international community, among which “there are those” who would have preferred that the event at the port wasn’t taking place. During the speech, Netanyahu continued to portray the world as a monolithic bloc of hypocrisy that ignores the Iranian nuclear program but tortures Israel whenever it “builds a balcony in Jerusalem.” Thus, with a wave of a hand, years of coordinated international effort to tighten the sanctions on the ayatollahs’ regime was simply dismissed.

The reprimands continued: The “isolated and weak” condemnations of the attempt to smuggle arms to Gaza contrasted with the “smiles and handshakes of representatives of the West with the representatives of Iran in Tehran at the very time that these missiles were being unloaded in Eilat.” The world’s silence in the face of Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s abetting of terror, he warned, was liable to lead Iran to send “armed nuclear suitcases” to every port in the world. The world, therefore, had better wake up.

But aside from these remarks, the tone of the press conference and the display of the weapons seized from the ship was relatively restrained, and did not match earlier reports that the Prime Minister’s Office would screen videos documenting public executions in Iran. Netanyahu’s office denied there had been any such plan, and the prime minister mentioned Iran’s penchant for public executions only once in his address. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon delivered a succinct summary of Iran’s sins and IDF officers briefly described the weapons that had been found, devoting some detail to the forged bill of lading and persuasive proof of its origin, which the army had refrained from previously discussing (for security reasons, it said) between last Wednesday and Netanyahu’s press conference Monday.

The capture of the ship was justified and legal under international law. It’s good that the rockets (not missiles, since they had no means of being remotely controlled) were seized before they reached the Gaza Strip, where they could have done great damage to Israeli residents. Certainly there is nothing wrong with Israel’s using such information to demonstrate Iran’s continuing support of terror groups to the world. But still, it was hard to shake the impression that the event was taking place too late, at a time when the world’s attention, limited from the outset, was focused on the mystery of the missing Malaysian plane and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

Israel tries very hard to distinguish itself from the political culture of neighboring states. To foreign visitors, a state ceremony with naval ships bobbing on the waves in the background doesn’t necessary sharpen that distinction.

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but during the Eilat press conference, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv announced that the Obama administration was immediately transferring $429 million for the production and procurement of more Iron Dome anti-missile batteries. American assistance in the production of the Iron Dome and the development of the Magic Wand and Arrow 3, which has already exceeded $1 billion, is an important part of Israel’s defense against the missiles that Iran and Syria are smuggling to terror groups in Lebanon and Gaza. So even as Netanyahu was rebuking the international community for abandoning us to Iran and Ya’alon was explaining that we can rely only on ourselves, Washington once again issued a reminder of who steps up to Israel’s defense time and time again, despite the across-the-board cuts in the defense budget (America’s, not Israel’s).

In January 2002, during the most murderous period of the second intifada, the IDF seized another large arms ship, the Karine A. Then, too, it was Iran that was trying to smuggle weapons into Gaza, which was still under the control of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Then, too, the prime minister, who at the time was Ariel Sharon, did not forgo a long, tedious ceremony at Eilat Port. The ministers and dignitaries were crowded on board the ship to share in the shards of glory left them by Sharon, barely leaving room for the naval and intelligence officers who had done the real work. Ram Rothberg, the commander of the Israel Navy, presumably remembers that well; he was the commander of the naval commandos that seized the Karine A.

Three months later, the IDF recaptured the major West Bank cities in Operation Defensive Shield. A company of reserve soldiers got trapped in a deadly ambush in the Jenin refugee camp and 13 soldiers were killed. Rothberg and his commandos were summoned to the camp, for fear that the Palestinians had snatched the bodies of some of the reservists. On that evening, when Rothberg’s neighbor, Central Command commander Yitzhak Eitan, was sent to explain the imbroglio to the press, there was no problem with crowding in the spotlight. Neither the chief of General Staff nor the political leadership were anywhere to be seen.

That is something Rothberg, Eizenkot and other military leaders who have been praised in the Israeli media over the past week would do well to remember. Just because a major media outlet profiled the naval commander and ran a fatuous and fawning headline (“Laughing and delightful”) doesn’t mean it won’t take off the head of the same commander if, say, a missile were to hit a missile boat. There would also be no reason to expect politicians to share responsibility before the microphones.

The party is over. If the Prime Minister’s Office and Israel’s public diplomacy apparatus doesn’t understand that quite yet, at least the army does. The deputy chief of staff spoke for about one minute at the Eilat press conference. “We’re looking toward the next mission,” Eizenkot said, and moved on.