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As UN probe begins, Netanyahu insists force necessary in Gaza flotilla raid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday told the Turkel Commission that force was necessary in Israel's Gaza flotilla raid that killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American.

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“What’s clear to me … is that what we’re going to hear is for the nth time that the internal decision-making process on national defense issues doesn’t work well and it needs to be fixed,” says Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the online commentary site, citing similar conclusions in other inquiries such as the Winograd Commission on the 2006 war with Lebanon.

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“What I find more painful is that for more than a year it was obvious that the entire policy of economic warfare against Hamas in Gaza was counterproductive," says Alpher. "This is the real question, and none of these commissions are going to ask it.”

Netanyahu acknowledged in his testimony that on May 26, which was just prior to the flotilla incident, he had discussed with his inner cabinet the need to adjust Israel’s policy toward Gaza. In the five months leading up to the blockade, he said, Israel increased by 30 percent the number of aid trucks allowed into the territory on a daily basis.

But he vociferously denied that Israel’s blockade, which has largely been supported by Egypt on Gaza’s other border, had created a humanitarian crisis in the tiny coastal territory. Rather, it was a PR crisis that caused him to ease the blockade, he said.

Israel's diplomatic efforts

Netanyahu said that Israel made all possible diplomatic efforts to prevent a conflict with the Turkish-sponsored flotilla and that his office had been in contact with “the highest echelons of the Turkish government.”

But his carefully orchestrated appearance started to crack when he blundered through a number of the panel’s questions, six of which he delayed answering until a closed-door session later in the day.

His office then issued not one but three clarifying statements after his appearance before the commission, perhaps most significant among them an attempt to refute the opposition Kadima party’s assertion that he had deflected blame to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Passing the buck to Barak?

Netanyahu, who at the time of the raid was in North America for a scheduled White House visit, told the commission that he had left Mr. Barak in charge of coordinating the flotilla response. (The prime minister canceled his Washington trip after the fatal raid.)

Barak was reportedly infuriated at Netanyahu's implication that he bore sole responsibility for any mistakes made in the flotilla operation. But when he testified to the commission today he said he took full responsible for the actions of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the raid. IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi is scheduled to testify Wednesday.

The spat illustrated the tensions between Netanyahu and Barak, a former prime minister of the waning Labor party. But it also underscored their symbiotic relationship as Israel comes under fresh international scrutiny with the UN flotilla probe.

“Barak needs Netanyahu because he doesn’t have a political party anymore, really,” says Mr. Baskin of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. “Netanyahu needs Barak because he has the image of being the responsible, professional, less ideological, more moderate [leader] in charge of Israel’s defense establishment. Netanyahu needs Barak, both locally and internationally.”

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid