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The Gaza-bound weapons shipment is in political stormy water

In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu went to great lengths to project himself as a great proponent of peace in the face of a very tough and hostile neighborhood

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

It is hard to imagine that when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was delivering his speech last week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference (AIPAC), he was unaware of an unfolding drama taking place in the south of the Red Sea. Thousands of miles away from the fanfare of the pro-Israeli gathering in Washington, Israeli Special Forces were on the verge of stopping a weapons shipment whose end destination was Gaza. It must have been unbearable for him, as he was castigating Iranian policies and their deceitfulness in the nuclear negotiations, not to share with his most ardent supporters, that Israeli elite units were about to board a vessel carrying Syrian missiles, which were allegedly being delivered by Iran to Israel’s sworn enemies in Gaza.

This operation concluded a very busy week for the Israeli military forces. First, they attacked a military convoy on the border between Syria and Lebanon, which Israeli security sources argued had carried weapons to the Hezbollah. Later in the week, IDF soldiers shot at Hezbollah militants attempting to plant a bomb near the fence between the Israeli occupied side of the Golan Heights and the Syrian border. Considering the current tensions with the American President Obama, the capture of Klos-C with its dozens of Syrian M-302 missiles and large pile of ammunition could have only served as a morale boost for Netanyahu. It provided him with the necessary ammunition for his current central foreign policy theme that Iran has not changed an iota on the nuclear policies, in addition to supporting those who aspire to harm, even destroy, Israel.

No denial

There is no denial that the introduction of the Syrian made M-302, with a range of around 160 kilometres, to the Israeli-Palestinian future battlefield would have been a game changer. These missiles can reach some of Israel’s major population centres, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Considering the embarrassment, as a result of exposing this illicit shipment of weapons, it should come as no surprise that no country or political movement is keen to claim any link, let alone ownership, to this hoard of missiles and other large quantities of ammunition. For the Israelis, it is both a military and a political coup. They must have effectively used their intelligence for many months to trail these weapons’ movement. Militarily, it is part Israel’s ongoing attempts to stop advanced weaponry from reaching Gaza. Politically, it serves as a much needed smoking gun in implicating Syria and especially Iran in clandestine operations in support of Israel’s enemies.

In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu went to great lengths to project himself as a great proponent of peace in the face of a very tough and hostile neighborhood

Yossi Mekelberg

Making the link between capture of the missiles and the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 was an obvious response from the Israeli leadership. After the revelations about the capture of Klos-C, and while still in the U.S., he chided the Iranians for simultaneously negotiating with the major powers and at “the same [time]…sending deadly weapons to terrorist organizations … that will be used to harm innocent citizens. This is the true Iran and this state cannot possess nuclear weapons.” In an ill-advised comment he also compared Iran to Nazi Germany, with regards to having the similar objective of destroying Israel.

Indeed, introducing this type of weaponry into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is irresponsible and could lead to an even bloodier theater of war between the two. However, there is still no accurate information as to who in Iran was behind the missile shipment and what their final destination was. For now, both the Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guard are denying any involvement. However, at least someone within the Iranian establishment is being economical with the truth. Worse, certain elements within the Iranian regime were either reckless or deliberately obstructive in getting involved with such an operation, especially at a time when the country is negotiating a resolution regarding her nuclear dispute with the world, let alone trying also to claw their way out of international isolation. For some, this might indicate that Iran is not negotiating the future of their nuclear program in good faith. However, a more plausible explanation is that there are divisions within the Iranian regime combined with a long standing animosity towards Israel, which results in conducting foreign policy with more than a hint of intrinsic contradictions and irresponsibility. This should not come as a complete surprise to Israel considering the threatening language between Tehran and Jerusalem for more than three decades.

The James Bond like operation

The James Bond like operation by the Israeli navy captured the headlines, but the political ramifications go well beyond the confiscation of one consignment of weapons. It reflects the instability in the region and the alliances that have been forged as a consequence. The timing of the capture of the Klos-C came at the worst time for American diplomatic efforts, which are attempting to negotiate concurrently peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a long term solution for the Iranian nuclear project, and an end to the Syrian civil war. The incident in the Red Sea can only lead to the toughening of Israel’s positions on Iran and the peace process. The Israeli government is entitled to be concerned by the introduction of this kind of weaponry, but might not necessarily be drawing the right conclusions. It is one thing to lambast Iran for being involved in the illicit trade of weapons to Palestinian organizations, it is another thing to overplay this with the objective of derailing sensitive negotiations which would stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It is also legitimate to highlight that while peace negotiations are going on, some Palestinian factions arm themselves with weapons that can hit Israel hard. However, using this fact as a reason to hinder progress in the peace negotiations is problematic to say the least, as the Palestinian Authority had nothing do with this transfer of arms. Considering the rift between Iran and the Hamas since the latter left its headquarters in Damascus, it is more than reasonable to assume that the lethal consignment was not aimed to reach them, but one of the smaller groups, for instance the Islamic Jihad.

In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu went to great lengths to project himself as a great proponent of peace in the face of a very tough and hostile neighborhood. It might have been for the benefit of President Obama, who made it clear to him in their meetings last week, that he was displeased with the Israeli approach to the peace negotiations. Alternatively, it might have been that he thought it allowed him to show even a tougher line on Iran. In the past the Israeli prime minister threatened that Israel would not tolerate the possession of nuclear arms in Iranian hands; in his speech last week he underlined that there is a danger even if Iran only reaches the threshold of nuclear military capability. What his audience was not aware of was that he knew that within a matter of a few hours he would be able to pull out what he believed was a wild card in the shape of a ship full of weapons in the Red Sea. It was for him more proof for the world to see that the Iranian regime cannot be trusted, and that the world should keep them in check.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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