Israel announced Monday that it would cooperate with a United Nations investigation into the fatal Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla May 31. The decision marks the first time Israel – which routinely criticizes the UN as biased against the Jewish state – has participated in a UN inquiry into the actions of its defense forces.
The move, an about-face after rebutting intense international pressure for two months, signals Israel’s assessment that it cannot protect itself if it keeps alienating key allies, say Middle East security experts.
“There is concern in Israel right now that the country has … not been isolated this way since perhaps after Lebanon war in the 1980s. Our relations even with our friends have taken a hit, including the [European Union],” says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv, adding that Israel is aiming to improve one relationship in particular. “The address on [this announcement] has one recipient, and that’s Turkey.”
Long Israel’s sole Muslim ally, Turkey has become increasingly alienated from Israel over the past two years. Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan harshly criticized the Gaza war last year, and Turkish officials are said to have supported the “Freedom Flotilla” – including its flagship, the Mavi Marmara.
When Israeli naval forces clashed with the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, killing nine activists on board, Turkey threatened to cut off relations unless Israel apologized or agreed to take part in a UN investigation.
Israel: 'Nothing to hide'
In announcing Israel’s willingness to join such an investigation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today declared that Israel “has nothing to hide.”
“It is in the national interest of the state of Israel to ensure that the factual truth of the overall flotilla events comes to light throughout the world and this is exactly the principle we are advancing,” Mr. Netanyahu said, after informing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon of Israel’s willingness to participate. Mr. Ban had delayed the anticipated investigation in hopes that Israel would cooperate.
"I sincerely hope that this will contribute to the peace process as well as improvement of relationship between Israel and Turkey," Ban said, adding that the deal was reached after two months of "intensive consultation with the leaders of Israel and Turkey."
The investigation will be done by a four-member panel co-chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and including a Turkish and an Israeli representative.
Israel had previously refused to cooperate with the UN-led Goldstone commission that resulted in a harsh, controversial report on Israel's actions during the 2009 Gaza war.
"I thought it was a mistake not to cooperate with the Goldstone committee," says Uzi Dayan, a former general who headed Israel’s National Security Council from 2003 to 2005. He says he agrees with the decision to cooperate with the UN flotilla probe.
“We are not happy with it, but I think it was the right decision. If you can’t prevent such an investigation … at least you have to play a role,” says Gen. Dayan (ret.), a member of Netanyahu's Likud party.
He cautions, however, that it is essential that the UN flotilla investigation’s mandate include not only the actions of Israel, but also Turkey’s role and the activities of Hamas, the Islamist movement in charge of Gaza that both Israel and the US consider a terrorist organization.
While Israel has eased its strict siege on Gaza, it has insisted on maintaining the naval blockade, which it sees as essential to preventing Iranian arms shipments from reaching Hamas.
Rise of militant Islamist groups changes Israel's strategy
It is precisely the rise of militant Islamist organizations such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon that has made Israel realize that military power alone is insufficient, says Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the commentary website Bitterlemons.org.
“If you look over the last few years of our confrontations with Hezbollah and Hamas, you see that increasingly we recognize how difficult it is to find workable military and political strategies for dealing with these enemies,” he says. “And increasingly we are prepared to fall back on the international community.”
For example, Mr. Alpher points out, one of the stated aims of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the Lebanon war four years ago was to bring an international force into southern Lebanon, from which Hezbollah had escalated rocket attacks on northern Israel. “That is totally without precedent in the IDF and it reflects the huge reluctance to end up a position where we’re reoccupying southern Lebanon or occupying Gaza,” he says.
So while Israel’s security concerns remain unchanged, the state is increasingly looking to international alliances as essential to addressing those concerns, according to Mr. Javedanfar.
"In today’s world, military power can only defend you so much. You need more international credibility and Israel, whose opinion in many cases was very valid, was finding that it had less and less of an audience because ... it acted as if it did not have to answer to anybody," he says. “Israel will still have the same security concerns but now it seems it’s using a more broad range of tools to address them – one of which is cooperating with the UN.”