If Israel believed that exposing an Iranian arms transfer to terrorists in Gaza was a public relations coup that might make the White House think twice about making a deal with the regime in Tehran over its nuclear weapons program, then Jerusalem has fundamentally misread the Obama administration. Perhaps just as ominously, it shows that the government of Israel doesn’t understand the new media environment.
Last week Israeli naval commandos boarded the Panamanian-flagged Klos C in the Red Sea to interdict the transfer of medium-ranger rockets that may have constituted, in the words of one Israeli journalist, a “tie-breaker.” The weapons, wrote Ron Ben-Yishai, were intended to overload and neutralize Israel’s rocket and missile defense system in the event Iran initiates a “high-trajectory offensive on Israel through its messengers: Hezbollah, Syria and the Gazans.”
In other words, the Klos C affair wasn’t just about moving arms to terrorists. Rather it’s part of the strategic missile campaign that Iran embarked on after Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel. In arming its clients on Israel’s borders (Hamas, Hezbollah, the Assad regime), Tehran seeks to change the balance of regional power by deterring Israel from striking its nuclear weapons facilities.
Therefore, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right to think the seizure is a big deal. But his narrative is wrong. "The goal of seizing the arms ship was to expose Iran's true face," Netanyahu said over the weekend. He called out EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who was visiting Tehran. "I wish to ask her whether she asked her hosts about the shipment of weapons to terrorist organizations."
Clearly it had no effect on Brussels, or more importantly on the White House. Obama administration officials explained that they’re not happy about the Iranian action, but it’s not changing any minds about engaging Tehran. “It’s entirely appropriate to continue to pursue the possibility of reaching a resolution on the nuclear program,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
In short, the Klos C was not, as former Israeli ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich explained, another “Karine A moment.” Israel’s January 2002 seizure of the Karine A, a ship carrying weapons from Iran to Gaza, showed that Yasser Arafat was directly involved in terrorism, and helped bring George W. Bush closer to Ariel Sharon’s government. But Obama already knows the Iranians arm terrorists. As he told the New Yorker in January, the entire point of engagement with a state sponsor of terror is “to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon.”
The seizure of the Karine A influenced the Bush White House because the policy aims of Jerusalem and a post-9/11 Washington were almost perfectly aligned—the main issue for both was Arab terrorism. That Israeli operation simply advanced a narrative that was already out there, and that both Bush and American public opinion were inclined to believe in the first place.
Today the policies of the White House and Israel are almost directly opposed. Netanyahu says the Iranians must never be allowed to have nuclear weapons capacity, and Obama says he wants to see Iran normalized and re-integrated into the international community—a goal that cannot possibly be achieved by stomping on the regime’s crown jewel, its nuclear weapons program. Israel’s messaging, the PR campaign that the seizure of Klos C was supposed to buttress, doesn’t track with that of the White House, but runs against it. In this context, Israel’s information operation is hostile to the policies of the host government.