Benjamin Netanyahu - Getty Images
Benjamin Netanyahu in Ashdod, March 16, 2011. Photo by Getty Images
Text size

While the international community fearfully watched the growing nuclear disaster unfold in Japan, the Israeli leadership continued to behave as if the conflict with the Palestinians was the only issue on the global agenda. As the radioactive cloud approached Tokyo, officials here argued about the size of pixels covering or exposing the stab wounds on the bodies of the children murdered last weekend in Itamar.

The dissonance peaked when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not go out of his way to defend the naval commandos when the operation aboard the Mavi Marmara last May went awry, rushed to the microphones just hours after the Victoria was intercepted Tuesday. Defense Minister Ehud Barak invited correspondents to the Ashdod port the next morning at 6:15 A.M., so that they could watch him being the first to board the ship. It took a nighttime negotiating session between both men's bureaus before a compromise was reached on the sharing of credit, the result of which was a joint press conference with Netanyahu, Barak, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Navy commander Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom on Wednesday afternoon.

The Itamar murders are no less shocking than the suicide bombings of the last decade. Nor has Iran become less malicious between the first arms ship and the fourth. But the hope that the world would turn away from the tragedy in Japan to show solidarity with Israel's fury at murderous Palestinians and Iranian machinations was doomed from the start.

The foreign diplomats who politely surveyed the stacks of weapons will report back to Washington, London and Berlin. There, the reports will be filed by personnel who remember that for months, Israel has not undertaken a political initiative despite the building pressure in the territories. Barak himself described a "diplomatic tsunami" washing over Israel in light of the Palestinians' plans to unilaterally declare an independent state. Still, the defense minister is not drawing any practical conclusions from his own analysis.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the Itamar murders a "pogrom," while eulogizers at the funeral used Holocaust analogies. Such comparisons are off the mark and damage Israel's case. Itamar is not Kishinev, not only because of the number of victims, but mainly because Israel's citizens have a strong, well-equipped army to defend them, even if it sometimes fails to thwart serious terrorist attacks.

If fired from Gaza, the Chinese-Iranian C-704 shore-to-sea missiles on the intercepted vessel would indeed be capable of hitting the southern edges of the Ashdod port and nearby industries. However, they apparently pose less danger to navy craft. As soon as a vessel learns it is entering into missile range, operational behavior changes and defense systems are activated. Calling the missile a "balance-breaker" suggests there had been an operational stalemate between the Israel Defense Forces and Gaza Strip-based Hamas and Islamic Jihad. As Operation Cast Lead and other cases have shown, this is hardly the case.

The interception of the arms shipment is further testimony to Israeli intelligence's impressive capabilities. The naval commandos, as Barak rightly noted, have faced more difficult operational challenges. The Romanian captain of the Victoria looked truly stunned when he was shown the missiles his vessel was carrying. After apologizing, he asked to have his picture taken with the commandos and an Israeli pennant flag.

Iran has been stepping up its smuggling efforts, with the close assistance of Syria. It has now begun using a northern route, too, after several caravans sent via the Red Sea and Sudan to Egypt failed to reach their destination. The Victoria was also bound for Alexandria, where the cargo was to be unloaded, before being brought via the anarchic Sinai to the Rafah tunnels. Without Mubarak, Israel seems to have no one in Egypt to turn to for security cooperation.

On Wednesday morning, shortly before Netanyahu's visit to Ashdod, the air force attacked a Hamas training camp on the ruins of the Netzarim settlement in the Gaza Strip. Two Hamas activists were killed. The IDF explained that this was a speedy response to Qassam rockets that had struck farmland near Sderot. The rockets were fired by a tiny faction, but Israel believes Hamas has reduced its efforts to rein in smaller organizations. A daylight attack on a manned Hamas camp is relatively rare. Jerusalem may have wanted to flex its muscles after the arms shipment and the murders in Itamar.

The new soldiers

The Itamar attack was not the main topic of conversation in Ramallah on Tuesday. The city was marking Palestine Unity Day, Facebook-organized demonstrations held throughout the West Bank. The Ramallah rally was a demonstration by the new generation: Most of the participants were high-schoolers. The chief organizer, Rami Mahadawi, 33, could be considered almost an old fogey. This audience is tired of hearing about Fatah-Hamas fights and even about the occupation. The youngsters who came to demonstrate want a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines, even if it exists alongside Israel and not in place of it. Many of them had not yet entered primary school when the second intifada erupted at the end of September 2000. This is not a crowd that will be gung-ho to confront the IDF violently.

The young people who demonstrated in Ramallah are the new soldiers of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas. If they decide to launch nonviolent marches toward the checkpoints and the settlements in September, Israel will have a hard time stopping them. Tear gas and rubber bullets might eventually do the trick, but the Palestinians will win the international public-relations battle.

Abbas stated this week that he will not allow a third intifada to occur as long as he is in power. However, if no political breakthrough occurs by September, Abbas might announce his resignation (and mean it this time ). That, too, could push Israel into a corner.

Back to training

The Golan Heights is more beautiful than ever as the winter wanes. Not even the hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers that sped across the terrain there this week in a Golani Brigade training exercise were able to detract from the spectacular views. On Tuesday, the brigade's big Merkava APCs were parked in the middle of a field of wild chrysanthemums and meadow saffrons. Behind them, Hummer vehicles made their way through thick mud. Snowcapped Mount Hermon rose into the sky.

The day before, the weather had forced the commander of the Golan formation, Brig. Gen. Eyal Zamir, to forgo his plan to fly in some of the troops by helicopter for the annual exercise of capturing Mount Hermon.

The plans were changed and the exercise's next stage was moved to the Elyakim area, where a training ground simulates a Hezbollah "nature reserve." Zamir was pleasantly surprised that the junior officers quickly learned the technological command-and-control systems. "We thought it would take a long time, but for young soldiers it's just another laptop," he said.

Golani Brigade commander Col. Ofek Buchris took advantage of the first break after two intensive days without sleep. The 41-year-old father of six napped for a few minutes on the ground like any ordinary grunt. Soon the brigade will move to the Gaza border, but the current training on the Golan Heights is focused on preparing the soldiers for challenges in the north, combining regular-army combat with confrontations with a guerrilla organization. Much of the exercise is unplanned, with Zamir and his staff giving Buchris missions to perform in real time.

Like many of his colleagues, Buchris regrets the six years without training between the outbreak of the second intifada and the Second Lebanon War. "We lived with the illusion that the broad operational experience we gleaned in the territories would compensate for a lack of structured training. I myself did not grasp the mistake until I went to train with the United States Army in 2005. I tried to explain to the American officers that in Israel we learned through combat. They looked at me like I was nuts. In retrospect, the Americans were right."

The return to training is serious and thorough, even if the officers are aware of the current format's shortcomings. In the 1990s, the IDF trained in 17-week cycles for each regular brigade. Currently, training is for 13 weeks (due to budget constraints and the Reserve Duty Law ), which means it doesn't include some things. The exercises show the army is well-primed, with devoted and energetic officers. This is especially evident in Northern Command, where GOC Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot dictated a no-nonsense line that is far from arrogant.

The new chief of staff, Benny Gantz, was busy Tuesday: He toured the Golani Brigade exercise, visited the National Induction Center and supervised the naval commandos at sea from afar. Gantz is introducing a new style at the General Staff, in terms of both harmony with other generals (Eizenkot is a key pillar of support ) and improved relations with the defense minister. He began his talk with new recruits at the NIC by saying, "My name is Benny and I'm the chief of staff."

In the weeks ahead, Gantz will have to finish preparation of the IDF's next five-year plan and also reach an agreement with Barak on a round of new General Staff appointments. Some of the veterans can be expected to retire. It's not yet clear which front will shape his tenure. It could be the north, which in the past few months has seemed pretty quiet, or it could be a new escalation with the Palestinians against the backdrop of their planned declaration of independence.

Former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who had a good four-year term devoted to rehabilitation and a return to basics after the 2006 Lebanon debacle, used to say that an army should occupy itself with only two things: war or preparation for war. It has to be understood, Gantz's officers say, that Israel is in an ongoing battle. What happens between the rounds of fighting, such as Iran's regional subversion or arms smuggling into Gaza, will have a substantial effect on the character of the next clash - and it's the IDF's duty to address this.