EILAT — The rockets were set at an elegant 45-degree angle, the mortars organized in four neat rows, the armor-piercing bullets arranged in gleaming mounds. The afternoon light brushed the port side of the INS Hanit’s pewter hull, and the Israeli flags, posted in a loose circle, played cooperatively in the breeze. Only the message, delivered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, seemed to fall on largely impassive ears.
“There are those in the international community who would prefer we not hold this news conference here today,” Netanyahu said, standing before orderly rows of M-302 rockets seized from the Iranian-despatched Klos-C ship. “They feel uncomfortable that we should show what is really happening in Iran.”
He termed the prevailing lack of interest in Israel’s arms catch, a stark departure from the impact of the seizure of the PLO’s Karine-A in January 2002, “an additional testament to the age of hypocrisy in which we live.”
Netanyahu, speaking in English to several dozen rather incredulous foreign reporters, called the international condemnations “feeble” and “few and far between.”
His speech, subsequently echoed by the defense minister and nearly identical to the address given by prime minister Ariel Sharon on January 6, 2002, when the Israeli navy seized 50 tons of arms en route to Yasser Arafat’s Gaza – “The Palestinian Authority is a major player in the network of international terrorism, spearheaded by Iran,” Sharon said then – was just one part of the government’s charm offensive.
First came a chartered flight from Ben-Gurion International to Eilat; a bus to the navy’s Red Sea base; an air conditioned tent; a spread of orange wedges and sandwiches; free coffee; wide screen TVs; press information kits, including a thumb drive; and posters depicting burning American flags and a tweet in which Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Israel of bandying the “same failed lies,” above a photo of the rockets.
And yet incredulity ruled the day. Why now? some reporters wondered among themselves? And why Syria? What reason could the regime in Tehran possibly have to ship arms out of Damascus and then to Sudan? Also, why was the ship not intercepted closer to Sudan? And how are they to know that the weapons were bound for Gaza and not Sinai?
The army had answers for some of those questions. The timing of the Israeli interception, IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said, was dictated solely by operational concerns. The rockets were sent from Syria because the Iranian regime “did all in its power to cover its tracks and disguise the true nature of the mission.” Lerner insisted that the IDF was certain that the arms were headed for Gaza and added, revealingly, that the mortar rounds were produced in Iran.
And yet, as the crowd waited for Netanyahu, I heard one reporter remark that “this reminds me of the ‘Mission Accomplished’ scene” – a made-for-TV event in which US president George Bush, in May 2003, woefully prematurely declared victory in Iraq.
The speeches over, the bus, on the way to the airport, suddenly reversed direction and took the reporters back to the navy base. Security guards hopped on board and then, with no advance notice, Netanyahu got on. He took the bus microphone, the kind used by tour guides, and thanked the press for “making the effort” and coming to Eilat. He made some small talk about the coastal resort and said he hoped the reporters would come back in order to see things aside from rockets.
Before he left, the one question asked was “Are you accusing the West?” Netanyahu said he was merely “presenting the facts.” Few seemed fully convinced.