Israeli leaders on Thursday rejected growing calls for an international investigation of its fatal intercept of the Gaza-bound "Freedom Flotilla." But they are weighing whether to include foreign observers in a domestic probe, a move that would help deflect international criticism after Israeli commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian activists.
A decision to include international involvement would mark an evolution from last year, when, in the wake of the three-week offensive in Gaza, Israel resisted calls to set up its own independent investigation committee and refused to cooperate with the United Nations inquiry headed by Richard Goldstone.
But part of the shift may be an Israeli perception that its prospects for vindication are greater this time around. An investigation of the isolated flotilla operation is seen as likely to be more straightforward than those that looked into the 2008-2009 Gaza war or Israel's 2002 invasion of a Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin that killed dozens.
"It is a change in policy, but also reflects a change in circumstances," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. "The facts here are easy to establish, unlike Gaza and Jenin and numerous other incidents where the combat made it hard…. Clearly having an investigation which involves a neutral foreign observer will be an important response to the one-sided Goldstone process."
Indeed, this time, Israel is confident that it has evidence such as video footage that will back up its narrative that soldiers were attacked by weapon-wielding activists. Activists from the ship argue that they were provoked by Israeli naval commandos descending on ropes from a helicopter.
"This was a pinpoint incident that you have data material, before and after,'' says an Israeli official. "There's a sense in the air that if you investigate what happened on that ship its going to bear out Israel's version.''
Top cabinet ministers mulling US involvement
The United Nations Human Rights Council on Wednesday condemned Israel's raid on the flotilla and approved a resolution brought forward by Pakistan, Sudan, and the Palestinian delegation that called for an investigation. Israel and others say the legitimacy of the rights council is compromised by the presence of countries like Sudan, whose president has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. They say the council's call for an investigation is political.
But demands for an international investigation have come from many corners, not just the council. Reflecting Israel's indignant response to such calls, which have placed no emphasis on Hamas's compliance with international law, Israeli Prime Minister Benjmain Netanyahu on Wednesday night said that the Jewish state faced an "international attack of hypocrisy.''
Israel has made clear it will conduct an investigation; the open question is whether it will be a domestic probe or one that will satisfy international calls for transparency and credibility.
"It is our standard practice after military operations, especially operations in which there have been fatalities, to conduct a prompt, professional, transparent and objective investigation in accordance with the highest international standards," said government spokesman Mark Regev, according to the Associated Press.
Seven top cabinet ministers in Mr. Netanyahu's government are reportedly discussing whether to approve an internal investigation that would include an American observer or observers.
Even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who in the past has been the most vociferous critic of international pressures on Israel, told Israel's Ynet news that he sees no problem of commissioning an investigation with international involvement.
Livni: We want to leave the world outside Israel's door
"Israeli soldiers acted appropriately, period. But the entire world has come out with strange positions on various commissions of inquiry,'' she told Israel radio. "The goal of the [Israeli] government needs to leave the world outside the door of Israel… The Americans can lower the threshold of international involvement.''
Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel's defense ministry, says the army is already conducting a standard review of the incident necessary to learn lessons for the future. Under normal circumstances such a review is the preferred method, he says. However he acknowledged that the international political environment is "bad'' for Israel.
"Is it necessary to check what happened there from the point of view from an independent committee? We will have to deal with this issue with the US," he says. "We are open to the US [involvement] in the investigation we will do here, there will be no problem to share it.''
Why Israel is wary
Following the Gaza war, some Israeli politicians argued that the government should set up its own independent committee headed by a retired Israeli judge to fend off inquiries from the UN, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposed.
Israel has lobbied foreign allies to block the UN-sponsored Goldstone investigation, which it considers a biased attempt to limit its ability to respond to attacks from groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
So despite the readiness to work with the US on a flotilla investigation, Israel is uneasy about opening up the process to an international panel.
- Britain calls Israel's Gaza flotilla raid unacceptable
- Was Israel's raid on Gaza Freedom Flotilla legal?
- Full Gaza flotilla coverage