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.
Or rather, it would be hostile if it weren’t taking place in a vacuum. Both Ben-Yishai and Rabinovich note that the big foreign news story in the United States right now is about Ukraine, and Washington, says Rabinovich, is a one-story town. Maybe that was true when courting public opinion was simply about placing stories with four or five journalists at the networks and major newspapers. And to be sure, Obama has cultivated relations with a number of journalists he uses as sounding boards and surrogate spokesmen. But Obama also has a much larger understanding of communicating with the public. For instance, when the president of the United States does a six-minute comic segment on “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifinakis to promote the Affordable Care Act, that’s evidence that the media environment has changed. When there is no one public forum but many, shaping public opinion is a different matter.
Or, to see it from a different angle, let’s look at another information operation, one potentially very powerful and, unlike Israel’s most recent effort, truly capable of changing the strategic landscape of the Middle East.
As I argued last week, the Klos C story is only partly about Iran and Israel. It’s also about Israel and Egypt. The fact that Israel seized the weapons at sea before the ship docked at Port Sudan is evidence Jerusalem knows that the Egyptian army and intelligence services are incapable of stopping missiles from crossing the Sudanese border and traversing the length of the country to the northern border. Ben-Yishai speculates on what might have happened had those rockets reached the Sinai peninsula. “The IDF does not enter Sinai,” wrote Ben-Yishai, “and Israel Air Force planes don't fly in the peninsula's airspace so as not to violate Egyptian sovereignty. The military regime in Egypt is known to be very sensitive about its national honor, and so an M-302 launching system in Sinai is ideal.”
So what would have happened had Sinai militants started firing rockets into Israel? In spite of the Egyptian army’s obvious incompetence, Jerusalem presumably would have let the Egyptians have at least first crack at it, so as not to violate the army’s “honor.” The problem is that using the Egyptian army to root out jihadists firing on Israel would expose Egyptian strongman General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to very dangerous criticism—Sisi is protecting the Zionists.
What’s worse is that it’s basically true. Ok, the Egyptian army is incompetent and it seems that at least some of the intelligence Cairo has on jihadists in the Sinai, its own territory, comes from Israel. Nonetheless, Israel and its supporters regularly boast that security and military ties between the two countries are better than ever. But what’s common wisdom in Jerusalem and Washington and regularly reported in the Israeli and U.S. press is all but unknown in Egypt. After all, it is the kind of information that could get Sisi killed—as it doomed Anwar al-Sadat—or at least play into the hands of Sisi’s Muslim Brotherhood enemies. Right now, he is winning Egypt’s information war by calling the brotherhood “terrorists,” but they might be able to win back a large part of Egyptian public opinion, entirely anti-Israel and broadly anti-Semitic, if they can tar him as a Zionist collaborator.
To understand how their own information operation failed, Israeli strategists need to understand how they succeeded in stopping Iran’s information operation before it ever took off. The Iranians were simply seeking to advance the media narrative that’s already out there—Sisi is working with the Israelis. What Israelis and Americans think is a positive thing would strike Egyptian society very differently. Given that Egyptians don’t read newspapers in the first place and that in any case there are many different media you can use to push your argument in the court of public opinion, you can either, say, post on twitter—or wage a rocket campaign from the Sinai.