Fifty-five years ago this week, a flat-bottom ship that had conveyed American troops during World War II pulled into the Mediterranean waters near Kfar Vitkin, 23 miles north of Tel Aviv, and became a black mark in Israeli history.
The Altalena is little known to young Israelis; the Hebrew anniversary of its arrival and eventual destruction went almost unnoticed last week.
But the Altalena is increasingly cited in leadership and journalistic circles as a historical lesson for Mahmoud Abbas, the fledgling prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and for other "moderate" Palestinians. It represents the tough measures a government must take against armed insurgents in its ranks.
As radical Palestinians continue to reject a cease-fire proposed by Abbas, many Israelis wonder if history will repeat itself, if Palestinians will fight each other, if "a Palestinian Altalena" will take place.
The original ship, named for a pseudonym for the Revisionist movement founder Vladimir Jabotinsky, had sailed from a French port on June 1, 1948, loaded with 4,000 tons of arms and ammunition and 900 volunteer fighters, mostly Holocaust survivors. Under the command of the Irgun underground military movement, it was bound for the new Jewish state.
According to an agreement reached with the Haganah, the primary underground Jewish fighting force that constituted the bulk of the month-old Israeli army, the Irgun would become part of a unified Israel Defense Forces.
The Altalena’s cargo was illegal. According to a UN-brokered cease-fire, neither the Jews nor the Arabs would bring new arms into the region. But Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun, wanted 20 percent of the weapons to go to his units in Jerusalem.
David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of Israel’s new government, saw the Altalena as a challenge to his authority.
"The state cannot exist until we have one army and control of that army," he said.
Negotiations between representatives for Ben-Gurion and Begin quickly broke down. On June 21, with the ship near Tel Aviv, fighting between Israeli soldiers and Irgunists broke out. Who fired the first shot is not clear. At the end of the day, after 10 hours of shooting and shelling, the Altalena was in flames and about a dozen soldiers were dead (the figure is also unclear).
Headlines carried the news of Jews firing on other Jews, of near-civil war.
For some politicians and pundits, concerned about the escalating violence in contemporary Israel, invoking the Altalena has become a mantra, an article of faith. There will be no peace, they say, until the Palestinians have "their own Altalena": until the PA takes equally strong measures against Hamas, the Al-Aksa Brigades and other terrorists who reject a diplomatic solution in Israel/Palestine.
The symbolism appears strong.
"Palestinians study the milestones of the Zionist movement for guidance," Ethan Bronner wrote in The New York Times last month. "The point for the Palestinians is that until their radical militias are put out of action, those groups will always be in the position of spoilers."
"We have to decide that there will be no armed body in Palestinian society other than the PA," The Jerusalem Post on Sunday quoted a senior Fatah official as saying. "Those who don’t disarm peacefully will have to be broken down. I am convinced that we have to act like Ben-Gurion in 1948."
But to many advocates of both sides of the political divide, the Altalena symbolism is weak.
Abbas, said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, is "a clone" of Yasir Arafat committed to Israel’s eventual demise. Abbas will not sanction internecine fighting, Pipes said, and those who see a parallel with the Altalena "assume that the Palestinians" (the leaders) "have come to the conclusion they can live in peace with Israel."
And if Palestinian leadership has decided to make peace?
"And if pigs could fly …" Pipes answers.
Many Israelis reject the comparison between 1948 and 2003, says Calev Ben-David, managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.
"Is Abbas Ben-Gurion?" Ben-David asks: is the Palestinian strong enough, committed enough? "A lot of Israelis are skeptical."
"The demand that Abbas immediately confront militants is unrealistic not only because PA forces have been badly damaged during the two years of fighting, but more importantly because Abbas needs time to gain popularity and credibility," a Palestinian legislator told The Christian Science Monitor last week.
In some parts of the Palestinian camp, the Altalena precedent is considered irrelevant.
Calls to several prominent Palestinians for comments on this topic were made; none were returned.
Reached by phone, Saed Erakat, a Palestinian negotiator and frequent spokesman, said "The most important thing is to reach a cease-fire." In other words, no Arab vs. Arab scenario. "It must be resolved peacefully," he said, then the line went dead.
"Many Palestinians … are ready to fight against anyone who tries to disarm them," a commentary in Al-Ayyam, an independent newspaper in Ramallah, stated recently. "These people are found not only in opposition organizations, especially the Islamic ones, but also are members of armed groups inside the Fatah movement itself."
Only a Palestinian government that has a united army and a genuine desire for peace will reach an accommodation with Israel, most Israelis agree.
Ben-Gurion, who once declared about the Altalena, "Blessed be the cannon that shelled that ship," later said, after getting to know Begin better, that his decision to attack the ship may have been hasty.
But, after the Altalena, his authority was never challenged again.