Muted US reaction to arms ship annoys Israelis


ISRAEL: Israeli officials have expressed growing agitation about the muted response by the United States to the capture of an arms ship in the Red Sea last week. According to Israel, it was carrying over 50 tons of weaponry for the Palestinian Authority.

The officials, who spoke anonymously, accused the Bush administration of playing down the significance of the weapons ship in an effort to limit the damage it might cause to the Middle East diplomatic process, particularly the ongoing ceasefire efforts of envoy Mr Anthony Zinni.

They also suggested the lukewarm US reaction to the seizure of the ship was an effort to limit the manoeuvrability of the prime minister. Mr Ariel Sharon raised speculation earlier this week that he might be planning to sever ties with the Palestinian Authority in the wake of the seizure.

The Transport Minister, Mr Ephraim Sneh, of the centre-left Labour Party, castigated the US yesterday, particularly a State Department announcement on Monday that the Americans did not know who had hired the boat and who was to be the recipient of the weapons shipment.

"If you consider the possible destinations of the ship, the fact that the captain is a high-ranking official in the Palestinian Authority, and that there were Palestinian Authority people aboard the ship, anybody can figure out where it was headed," he said.

The US Defence Secretary, Mr Donald Rumsfeld, was less circumspect, however, saying the Israelis seized the vessel because they "clearly had very good intelligence that those weapons were going to be used against them and they intercepted the ship".

Mr Sharon, trying to play down Israel's displeasure with the US position, said in Jerusalem the Americans were fully cognizant of the fact that President Yasser Arafat and his authority had engineered the weapons-smuggling operation. "The administration knows exactly all the details. . . that millions and millions of dollars were spent by the Palestinian Authority, and that things like that are not done without the direct approval of Arafat," he said.

But Israel, fearing that the public relations blitz it launched immediately after it seized the ship has proven ineffective, decided yesterday to dispatch intelligence officers to the US and Europe with what it said would be incontrovertible proof of the involvement of Mr Arafat.

Government officials also said they would release documents this week revealing the authority's direct involvement in the arms shipment, which included long-range Katyusha rockets, anti-tank missiles and a large quantity of explosives. The documents, said government spokesman Mr Ra'anan Gissin, would include papers on the ship's ownership and the purchase of the weapons.

While the Palestinians continued to deny any connection with the weapons ship, Mr Arafat launched an investigation into the affair yesterday, declaring that if any Palestinian was discovered to be involved they would be punished. "If anything is revealed - and I personally do not think it will be - we will not hesitate to bring them (those involved) to account," Mr Arafat said.

The Palestinians also said the US, European Union, Russia and the United Nations had all received invitations to set up a committee to review the findings.

Despite the announcement of an investigation, Palestinian leaders continued to dismiss the weapons ship as an Israeli attempt to besmirch Mr Arafat. Mr Jibril Rajoub, the head of Palestinian Preventive Security in the West Bank, called the incident a "Sharon lie," while other Palestinian spokesmen accused Israel of being behind the weapons-smuggling operation.