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Not a Karine A moment

Israel's interception of a ship loaded with missiles bound for Gaza will not change Obama's course on Iran

On the face of it the Israeli capture of an Iranian ship loaded with intermediate range missiles on its way to Gaza bears a striking similarity to the Karine A affair of January 2002. But while the latter had a profound effect on George W Bush’s view of Yasser Arafat and the Israeli Palestinian conflict, it is hardly likely that the exposure of Iran’s ongoing support of terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad will have a similar impact on the Obama Administration’s give and take with Iran.

Karine A was a boat carrying weapons from Iran to Gaza that was intercepted by the Israeli navy in the midst of the Second Intifada. It affected President Bush’s outlook and policy in two important ways. For a president totally immersed in “the war on terror” it provided proof that Yasser Arafat was directly involved in terrorism. To boot Arafat was also caught lying to the President. It was not the only factor shaping Bush’s policy during the next two years, but it did play a major role in his adopting the view that Arafat was part of the problem rather than part of the solution and in forging his close cooperation with Sharon’s government.

For a number of reasons this scenario is not likely to repeat itself in the context of Washington’s evolving relationship with Iran. When the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was signed, it was widely speculated that it was part of a larger rapprochement with Teheran. Sunni governments in the region, Saudi Arabia’s in particular, suspected that the US was ready to recognize Iran’s prominent role in the region in return for the latter’s collaboration in resolving the Syrian crisis and other issues.

So far, the major issue of converting the interim agreement into a permanent one has yet to be resolved and the regional issues seem to be more on the shelf than on the table. From the Obama Administration’s point of view, the fact that Iran was caught red handed stoking the fire in Gaza is embarrassing, but as the President’s interview to Bloomberg clearly showed, he does not tend to be deflected from his chosen course by awkward revelations about problematic interlocutors. Thus, he still views the chemical crisis issue with Syria last summer as a success.

Washington is often described as “a one crisis town.” The crisis that dominates the agenda is obviously the Ukrainian one. If the president and his men have the time and patience to reflect on and deal with Middle Eastern issues, it is the difficult Israeli Palestinian negotiation that would be first on their minds.The Iranian arms ship is a very important issue. Missiles with a range of 100 kilometers in Gaza is a very disturbing moment. Iranian meddling in Gaza and the effort to surround Israel with batteries of missiles is equally disturbing. But in the ebb and flow of the current diplomatic agenda it will probably not be given its due attention.

About the Author
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador in Washington, is president of The Israel Institute in Washington DC; He is affiliated with Tel Aviv University, New York University and The Brookings Institution
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