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In Israel, "Operation Noah's Ark," the January 3 capture of a ship carrying weapons bound for Palestine, was an epiphany. For many erstwhile doves, it shattered the illusion--still alive despite more than a year of intifada--that they could negotiate a demilitarized Palestinian state next door.
The rest of the world treated the news with a yawn. Italy's la Repubblica restricted its discussion of the ship to a sidebar within a front-page article about Yasir Arafat's confinement to Ramallah, entitled "The Sad Days of Arafat--President in Prison." Germany's Berliner Zeitung mentioned the ship under a headline about the Palestinian Authority's (PA) arrest of six extremists. London's Observer buried the story altogether.
In much of the international press, Arafat's denial of responsibility--his solemn word that he knew nothing about a 4,000-ton ship purchased by one of his operatives and manned by members of his navy--has been treated as a credible counterweight to Israeli claims. Not even the televised admission by the ship's captain that the weapons were loaded near the Iranian coast, overseen by a Hezbollah agent, and bound for the PA--a textbook example of President Bush's definition of what transforms a local conflict into global-reach terrorism--convinced foreign observers that Israel had uncovered a Palestinian-Iranian-Hezbollah triangle.
Few governments considered it disturbing that Arafat was using his pledged crackdown on terrorism as a cover to acquire weapons of terror aimed at civilians--dozens of Katyushas that could be used in attacks on Israeli towns and more than 2,000 kilos of high-grade explosives, especially c-4, more powerful than any explosive used in the car bombs and suicide assaults so far. Even the State Department--desperate to preserve what was once a peace process and is now barely a cease-fire process--reacted to the Palestinian captain's confirmation of Israel's accusations with the bland assertion that it was awaiting more conclusive proof.
In Israel, by contrast, the operation--conducted more than 300 miles off the Israeli coast--was treated as an epic. Israelis consumed every detail, from how the ship was tracked after its purchase last October, to its eight-minute bloodless takeover. In its first edition after the news broke, the newspaper Maariv devoted 17 news pages to the story; commentators recalled the Entebbe rescue and the bombing of the Iraqi reactor at Osirak. "Just Like the Movies," exulted the headline of Israel's largest daily, Yediot Aharonot. One left-wing columnist complained that the newspapers resembled "victory albums"--a relapse into post-Six Day War arrogance. Yet Israelis weren't gloating; we were relieved: Despite our flight from Lebanon and our stalemated war against terrorism, we were still smart and daring enough to protect ourselves.
No more. "Operation Noah's Ark" has quickly returned Israel's focus to infrastructure. Defense Minister and newly elected Labor Party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has warned that the relative lull in violence conceals a steady expansion of the terrorist infrastructure. Even the left-wing newspaper Ha'aretz has been forced to concede that "Arafat is preparing for a huge escalation, including the ability to equip hundreds of suicide attackers with explosives and to attack Israeli cities with rockets." And most Israelis now realize that to demand that Arafat dismantle Palestine's terrorist infrastructure is absurd: As this incident proved, the biggest terrorist infrastructure in the PA is the PA itself. And so the Oslo process has moved from ambitious negotiations over ending the conflict to pathetic negotiations over resuming negotiations to now, finally, the realization that there is no point in negotiating at all.