Israel stops the growing Iranian sphere of influence in its tracks.
On Tuesday, the Israeli navy stopped and boarded the "Victoria," a German owned, French-operated ship flying a Liberian flag that was sailing from Turkey to Syria. It was loaded with weapons the Israelis believe were headed to the Gaza Strip, which is currently controlled by Hamas terrorists. The stop occured in international waters and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took full responsibility for the interception, claiming he had a “solid basis” to believe the ship was transporting arms “destined for terrorist forces in the heart of Gaza.” Netanyahu's assumption proved true, and countless civilian lives were undoubtedly saved because of it.
"Last night, I granted permission to take over a ship for which we had the basis to think that there were weapons on it destined for Gaza," Netanyahu said. "The source of the weapons is Iran, which continues to try to arm terrorist forces against Israel. It is our right and duty to stop the smuggling of these weapons," he added. Mr Netanyahu also pointed out that while the ship's journey originated in Turkey, that country “was not tied to the incident in any way.”
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich speculated that this incident was tied to last month's passage of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal for the first time since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The Victoria, which set sail from the Syrian port of Lattakai and then stopped in Mersin, Turkey, was bound for Alexandria, Egypt. From there the weapons were to be transported to Gaza by land. The Jerusalem Post notes that Lattakai was the same port visited last month by the two Iranian warships. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel had been tracking the ship for days, and that the goal of this smuggling attempt "was to harm Israel’s security” and that his country would continue to pursue any challenge to that security “determinedly, and everywhere, to defend the country.”
The Victoria was escorted to the Israeli port of Ashdod where Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz went to inspect the arms cache. The cache was comprised of six C-704 anti-ship missiles made in Iran with Chinese components, two radar control systems manufactured by British company Kelvin Hughes, and thousands of mortar shells for which the design specification had been sold to Iran by Israeli company Soltam in the early 1970s, when the two countries were still allies. Officials put all of the armaments on public display Wednesday. "To all those who questioned and attacked and criticized Israel for stopping Gaza-bound ships in order to check them, here is the answer," Mr. Netanyahu said, standing before the cache.
The Prime Minister continued. "Every day there are efforts by Iran, Syria and terrorist organizations to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas," Netanyahu said. "There is an axis of terror in our region, and we have to confront it if we want to prevent terrorism and create a chance for peace…The weaponry discovered onboard the Victoria prove why Israel needed to prevent ships from sailing freely into the Gaza Strip.”
Iran denied the accusations. "The Zionist regime's diet is mixed with lies, lies and more lies," said Iranian Army Commander-General Amir Ataollah Salehi "We deny all false reports. The Zionist regime is a usurper. There is an Islamic awakening throughout the Middle East and North Africa that sees the damage...there is no doubt that Israel is calculating its losses since the departure of the Egyptian Pharoah. God willing, they will sink to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea...next year the armed forces of the Islamic Republic will be stronger than ever." Unfortunately, for the general there was a rather inconvenient piece of evidence revealed with respect to the anti-ship missiles: the missiles themselves were labeled in Farsi, along with the operation manuals explaining how to use them. Farsi is the most widespread language used in Iran.
Israelis believe Iran is testing their country's resolve in the wake of the various uprisings that have engulfed the region. No doubt they are also seeking to increase their influence as well, following the fall of Israel's most reliable ally, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Although the Egyptian army claims it intends to maintain the status quo with respect to that alliance, Egypt's own stability remains in question. Just over a week ago, 13 people were killed and 140 injured in sectarian violence between Muslims and Christian Copts triggered by the burning of a Coptic church.
Saudi Arabia shares a similar concern about Iranian ambitions. They have moved troops into the country of Bahrain to help suppress that country's anti-government protests, where a Shi'ite Muslim majority population is seeking to remove a government run largely by Sunni Muslims. And while there is no direct evidence of Iranian involvement in the uprisings, their state media was highly critical of the move, characterizing it as "an invasion" of a country sometimes referred to by the Iranian government as their "14th province."
Israeli Vice Premier Silvan Shalom spelled out the concerns shared by both Saudi Arabia and Israel. “Iran is trying again to shake up the regimes in the Middle East and to replace the moderate regimes with those that are ideologically close to them,” he said at the Negev Conference in Eilat. "[Iranians were trying to show who] is in control of the Middle East,” he added. Dan Schueftan, a political science professor at Haifa University and a former adviser to Israel's foreign ministry went further. "The Iranians are more confident now. The upheavals in the Arab world are very good for them," he said. "The Iranians are trying every way to arm the region, and except for Israel, nobody is trying to stop them. When Egypt is weakened, even if Egypt wants to help Israel, I don't think there is anyone in Egypt who can do it."
The ship was intercepted 200 miles off Israel's Mediterranean coast where its captain gave Israeli commandos permission to board. There was no resistance from the crew, and the commandos were provided with a manifest documenting the cargo, one which claimed the ship was transporting cotton and lentils. Israeli military analyst Ron Ben Ishai expressed the importance of the seizure. "Had this shipment gone through to Alexandria and then to one of the Palestinian organizations in Gaza, it would have given them the capability that does not exist today, that is, to hit the Israeli navy at a distance of 35 kilometers," he said.
Israel has been under mounting international pressure to abandon its blockade of Gaza ever since their raid on a ship bound for that region last June resulted the death of nine Turkish activists. The Obama administration, which has yet to publicly comment on the current seizure, waffled with regard to Israel's attempt to maintain a naval blockade of Gaza back then. "The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed. For now, we call on all parties to join us in encouraging responsible decisions by all sides to avoid any unnecessary confrontations," offered Mike Hammer, spokesman for White House National Security.
No doubt the Obama administration will be equally "even-handed" this time, despite the fact that the so-called "humanitarian" aspect of last June's attempt to run the blockade was revealed for the unadulterated fraud it truly was. And that's assuming our terminally distracted president bothers to make any comment at all. Three days after the incident, we still have no idea what Mr. Obama thinks about it. On the other hand, we do know who his Final Four picks are for the NCAA's March Madness college basketball tournament--even as Muammar Qadaffi exterminates his opposition, Japan is facing an existential threat to its well-being, the Dow is in freefall, food prices have jumped the most since 1974, and housing starts have seen their biggest drop in 27 years. Sadly, the Israelis and their problems would appear to be at the back of a very long line. One for which the Obama administration demonstrates an appalling lack of urgency or prioritization on every item.
Both our allies and our enemies are now witnessing the much-ballyhooed antithesis of George W. Bush's "cowboy diplomacy." Our enemies, especially the Islamic thugs who yearn for Israel's destruction by any means necessary, are undoubtedly the most delighted by this "evolution" in American foreign policy.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.