'Francop?' What 'Francop?'
Given the nature of what are often covert attempts to foil gunrunning to both Hamas and Hizbullah, we will never know precisely what was thwarted, how many ships have been boarded over the years and what was discovered on them. But sometimes, when the navy nets a really big fish in its weapons-trawling operations, and when other operational and strategic factors allow, it displays its catch to the entire world. Along with the imperative to deny arms to our enemies, exposing to the world just what it is those enemies are up to has significant value, too.
There have been two particularly significant hauls made public in recent years - the Karine A in 2002 and the Francop on November 4. In the latest operation, 320 tons of Hizbullah-bound weaponry were intercepted in the Mediterranean, all packed into containers marked with Iranian shipping codes. Inside were many thousands of mortar shells, 107-mm. Katyusha rockets and 122-mm. rockets, and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. This shipment - the single largest ever captured by Israel - blatantly violated UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which forbids rearming Hizbullah.
Seven years ago, the Karine A ferried roughly one-tenth of the above cargo. Paradoxically, however, the smaller catch made more waves than did that of the Francop.
This is troubling primarily because the war against Israel is increasingly waged in the propaganda arena, where vilification and libel are the weapons of choice. Hizbullah and Hamas, having provoked Israel into confrontation in 2006 and last winter, respectively, proceed to pose as victims pummeled disproportionately by a callous Israel.
The arsenals these terror groups import and hoard are therefore of crucial importance. They demonstrate that Israel isn't facing local militias but powerful Iranian proxies. These presumed underdogs possess deadly missiles and artillery, obtained via smuggling operations that contravene their undertakings in truce deals and other agreements. Worst of all, the only use to which they put this military hardware is targeting civilian population centers.
This is precisely is why Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took care to stress that what had been seized onboard the Francop were the components of a war crime. But was the world listening? Apparently not.
Footage of the Francop's load was barely flashed on TV screens abroad - not everywhere at that, and with hardly any commentary. Netanyahu's war-crimes charge generated no play. In some broadcasts, the imparted impression was one of Israeli piracy. The International Herald Tribune, the world's newspaper, featured the item in one paragraph on page 5, column 6.
It may be that the Karine A capture resonated because it was the first intercept of its sort and to some extent its capture exposed Yasser Arafat's deceit at a time when Oslo was still widely regarded as a viable process. The US and others felt betrayed by Arafat. By contrast, Hizbullah gunrunning no longer surprises the international community, and its potential impact on Israel generates widespread indifference.
The implications are grave. Israeli grievances are essentially ignored. Aggressive anti-Israel schemes - of which the Francop was one - aren't deemed significant. Meanwhile, the delegitimation of Israel continues apace.
Given so inauspicious an international context, it was imperative that Israel at least act effectively in trying to convey the dangers emblemized by the Francop affair. Yet regrettably, the IDF Spokesman managed to mishandle the task.
The announcement of the capture was late and lacking in detail. No special briefing was arranged for the foreign press. Foreign correspondents should have been taken to Ashdod Port to see what was stashed onboard the Francop as the containers were being prised open - an operation that lasted two days. No such arrangements were made. When the Foreign Press Association requested access, it was told the munitions might explode.
Yet the next day diplomats from 44 countries and military attachÃ©s from 27 armies visited the site. Do they have greater impact on popular opinion?
Israel's security, to a considerable degree, also hinges on the struggles that take place beyond the military battlefield - in diplomatic forums, in the international legal arena, and in the court of global public opinion. The Francop seizure marked another missed opportunity. Israel faces an uphill battle to puncture overseas indifference to some of its challenges. In this case, once the navy had done its effective job, others forgot to fight.