After Hesitating, State Department Admits Arms Ship Was Bound for P.A.

After equivocating for days about Israel’s capture of a boat laden with 50 tons of weapons, the United States has acknowledged that the arms were bound for the Palestinian Authority.

Analysts say the Bush administration initially hesitated because it didn’t want the issue to derail a renewed U.S. peace effort in the Middle East.

The State Department acknowledged Tuesday that the weapons seized in the Red Sea on Jan. 3 were bound for the Palestinian Authority. The ship reportedly picked up the weapons from Iran and was headed for the Gaza Strip.

“We find the fact that there are Palestinians involved in shipping these weapons deeply troubling,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. “I would say we are waiting to hear a full explanation of the incident from” Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The Palestinian Authority has denied any connection to the boat, although the captain — a senior officer in the Palestinian navy — says he received orders from a high-ranking P.A. official. American officials called the Palestinian denials “unconvincing.”

The Palestinian Authority announced that it would investigate the incident and punish anyone it found responsible.

Boucher said the State Department was cooperating with senior Israeli intelligence officials, who were expected to brief the Bush administration on Wednesday.

The incident “tells us that there are Palestinians who want to escalate the violence,” he said.

Even after the captain of the ship described his mission, State Department officials publicly said they were seeking more details before holding Arafat responsible for the shipment.

“We tend to like to have the facts before we draw the conclusions, so at this point, we’re still talking, obviously, to the Israelis and talking to the Palestinians about getting the facts in this matter,” Boucher said Monday. He called comments from the captain about his association with the Palestinian Authority and Arafat’s Fatah movement “the grand speculative hypothetical that we don’t try to answer.”

Earlier, Bush administration officials speculated that the supplies might be headed for Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, not the Palestinian Authority. Boucher also said they were investigating reports that the shipment was loaded in Dubai, not Iran.

Israel displayed the seized arsenal in Eilat to reporters as U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni was trying to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority closer to a lasting cease-fire. The former Marine commander returned this week as scheduled to the United States but his mission is ongoing, and the State Department was concerned that condemning the Palestinians’ link to the weapons would stifle efforts to resume cooperation.

State Department officials say they are taking the issue more seriously than their earlier public statements would indicate. American Jewish groups said that, on the basis of information they received about Washington’s true perspective on the incident, they had anticipated the changed tone Tuesday.

“We do view it as a serious issue,” one official said. “It’s something Arafat has to take action on immediately.”

But the Bush administration wants to use the shipment as leverage to make the Palestinian leader carry out a serious crackdown on terrorism, rather than as a last straw forcing sanctions against the Palestinian Authority.

“He says he is not responsible. This is an opportunity for him to root out the infrastructure” of terrorist groups the official said. “He needs to take the actions that illustrate that you ensure your authority is not undermined.”

Israeli and American Jewish officials were angered by the slow U.S. response.

“I cannot understand the reaction of the United States,” Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said Tuesday before meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in Washington. The weapons could not have been bound for Hezbollah because of the clandestine manner in which they were going to arrive, he said, while Hezbollah receives its weapons openly by plane in Lebanon.

Israel’s transportation minister, Ephraim Sneh, told reporters in Israel that the State Department’s comments were an attempt to head off possible Israeli retaliation against the Palestinian Authority or Iran.

“It appears that the problem is that those who are hearing our words are not willing to admit the full significance,” Sneh said. “If you ask yourself to what destination a ship will be headed if its captain is a senior official of the Palestinian Authority and there are other people on board who also belong to the authority, any reasonable person knows where it was bound.”

The prevailing view is that the State Department had hoped to leave the door open for future security talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and allow Zinni to return to the region soon.

“This is an indication of the United States wanting to bring the Palestinians back to the table,” said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. He said the United States goes through stages — first expressing anger at the Palestinians for their actions, then trying to work with them.

Yet the State Department’s waffling sends an inconsistent message about the U.S. view on terrorism, Neumann said, especially after Sept. 11.

“You get them back to the table by your terms, not by denying reality,” Neumann said. “There have to be consequences for behavior.”

Many Jewish members in Congress, among Israel’s staunchest political allies in the United States, are out of the country on business. The U.S. response thus has not received the type of congressional criticism as on past occasions.

Under other circumstances, lawmakers likely would cite the incident as further reason for the United States to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, which the Bush administration resists.

“This is proof positive that they have been bullshitting everybody all these years,” Ackerman said of the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s seizure overshadowed Zinni’s mission to the region, highlighted by trilateral security talks. Zinni is expected to brief Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington before returning to the region Jan. 18.

“His four days of intensive consultations have made clear that though there are serious challenges that remain; there are also real opportunities for progress,” Boucher said Monday.

State Department officials hope Zinni’s mission, along with increased international pressure on Arafat, will lead to a lasting cease-fire.

Zinni’s first mission to the region late last year resulted in some of the worst violence since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, including several major suicide bombings.

Those attacks led to major pressure on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terror. This time, there were no major attacks during his trip.

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