Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave lengthy testimony Monday defending Israel’s fatal raid on a Gaza aid flotilla, saying it had exhausted all diplomatic options and faced an imminent threat from Hamas, the Gaza-based Islamist movement that Israel says is backed by Iran.
He told an internal Israeli inquiry into the raid that Israel stood as a shining example of democratic principles in a region where democracy remains an “endangered species.”
“I am convinced that at the end of your investigation, it will be clear that the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces conducted themselves in accordance with international law and that the IDF fighters who boarded the [Mavi] Marmara displayed a rare courage in fulfilling their mission and in defending themselves against a real threat to their lives,” he said in his opening statement to the Turkel Commission headed by former Israeli Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel.
With the United Nations in New York today opening a separate flotilla investigation, Mr. Netanyahu’s comments appeared crafted to defend Israel against international critics who are likely to zero in on Israel’s heavy handed tactics rather than the larger picture – including security threats from militants.
At home, most Israelis say Israel’s raid was unavoidable. Those who are critical of the raid see the Turkel Commission as too limited in scope to address the real issue: Israel’s policies toward militant groups like Hamas.
“There’s definitely a feeling that Israel responded in the only way it could, that this was a provocation against Israel, and I think that the Israel public is not expecting anyone to be held responsible,” says Gershon Baskin, codirector of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.
But part of the reason there is unlikely to be any political fallout is because the Turkel Commission is tasked only with determining the legality of the raid, not the more controversial issue of whether Israel’s blockade on Hamas-run Gaza is in accordance with international law.
“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 Bitterlemons.org, citing similar conclusions in other inquiries such as the Winograd Commission on the 2006 war with Lebanon.
“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.”