Israel's chance of achieving political or PR gain out of the takeover of the Iranian missile shipment to Gaza was limited from the start. The authorities' strange conduct at the display at the Ashdod port yesterday reduced it to zero.
The intelligence community, which provided early and accurate information about the weapons on the ship the Victoria, did impressive work this week. The naval commandos also accomplished their mission flawlessly. But in the present circumstances, it's very hard to translate the achievement into diplomatic currency.
The problem is not only the world media coverage, which is mostly dedicated to the disaster in Japan this week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is still thwarting the American and European pressure to initiate a move toward the Palestinians, wants to sell the missiles' capture as proof of the Palestinians' murderous intentions. On the face of it, after the horrific massacre in Itamar last weekend, this should have been an easy task for a super spin doctor like Netanyahu.
The problem is that the world is in no hurry to buy the Israeli argument. The United States and Europe make a clear distinction between the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic organizations. When the Karine-A weapons ship was captured in January 2002, Israel provided solid intelligence showing that the shipment was intended for Yasser Arafat's men. That was enough for the Bush administration to cut off relations with Arafat's regime, which encouraged suicide attacks while swearing commitment to the Oslo Accords.
This time, the missiles seized on the Victoria were intended for Hamas or Islamic Jihad, while Netanyahu's (partly justified ) arguments about the PA's incitement are not causing much of a media stir.
As far as the international community is concerned, the murder of the Fogel couple and three of their children was perpetrated by extreme Palestinians, whose leaders the PA has washed its hands of. Moreover, it is disappointing to find out that most denunciations of the murder, from Washington to Moscow, are not much more than various foreign ministries' lip service to Israel's demands. The world sees the West Bank hills as the Wild West, in which Israel is persistently annexing Palestinian farmers' lands. Even Friday night's barbaric massacre failed to evoke a wave of sympathy for the settlers' pain.
The navy made all the preparations for Netanyahu's visit on the dock. The soldiers labored all night unloading the containers. The weapons piles were placed on the dock in exemplary order, with the mortar shells all pointing south toward Gaza, parallel to the waterline.
From this point, things started to go wrong. The Shin Bet's VIP protection unit, which has been functioning seemingly in a world of its own since Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, detained a large batch of foreign journalists for more than an hour before beginning the security checks. No wonder many of them got tired of waiting and left.
Presumably they weren't too enthusiastic to begin with over what they saw as an Israeli propaganda display. None of the foreign networks thought of cutting their broadcasts from Tokyo for Netanyahu's speech to the world.
Maybe the Shin Bet's restrictions are necessary. Maybe there is no way to compromise on the prime minister's security and streamline the checking process (though plenty of people in the government and the Israel Defense Forces believe otherwise ). In this case, this is not the issue. The issue is, was it really imperative for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to appear at the display at the dock if they couldn't do so in the presence of the foreign media? After all, they had both already made televised statements on the matter on Tuesday.
Couldn't they make do with sending down a team from the Government Press Office, which could later distribute video of Netanyahu grimly surveying the loot? It appears Netanyahu and Barak couldn't resist, yet again. The entire event reeked of extreme overkill. Most of what remained of the impressive intelligence and naval-commando achievement, as usual in our case, was a sour taste.