Israel was expected to appoint an inquiry panel on Friday to investigate its fatal intercept last week of the Gaza-bound "Freedom Flotilla," responding to pressure from allies abroad to account for the violence that sparked an international uproar. Nine of the more than 700 pro-Palestinian activists who challenged Israel's naval blockade of Gaza were killed in the raid.
Both US and European diplomats have been involved in helping Israel set up the inquiry. Israeli media have reported that the panel will include a former Israeli Supreme Court judge, along with US and European observers – an attempt to produce the "credible'' report demanded by the international community. The inquiry could also reassess the three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, which Egypt has also supported.
"When you have more than one set of eyes looking at it that adds to the credibility,'' says Kurt Hoyer, press attache at the US embassy in Israel. "It's in everybody's interest to get a good investigation, we want to know the facts, it will be clear and we want to move on from there.''
But the inquiry is not expected to enjoy the same legal or political standing as those set up after Israeli wars, such as the ability to subpoena witnesses and to recommend a resignation, according to media reports.
A spokesman for the prime minister declined to comment on the reports, but said a statement could be released within hours or on Saturday night after the Jewish Sabbath.
Israelis split on whether a panel is necessary
Israel has a long tradition of conducting painstaking investigations, usually led by a former Supreme Court judge – a position seen as being above politics – after controversial Israeli military operations. A commission following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Golda Meir. The Winograd Commission, which investigated Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, prompted a defense minister and army chief of staff to step down.
There is relatively less clamor in Israel for such a panel, though many have demanded explanations about the apparent poor planning of the operation and lack of coordination between various branches of the Israeli government. A Haaretz newspaper poll suggested that Israelis are nearly evenly split on the need for an investigation. Of those who support a probe, 60 percent support having foreign observers participate.
"In this case [the panel] is not even something for the Israeli public, it's for the media," says Ben Dror Yemini, the opinion page editor of the daily Maariv newspaper, adding that few recommendations of previous committees were implemented. "It's because of public opinion, to make nice with the international community, and to make up with the Turks.''
Israeli officials look to S. Korea's example
The political goal of the panel is to tamp down anger in Turkey and Europe over the deaths of nine Turkish citizens, one of whom was a dual US citizen, in international waters. On the other hand, the US and Israel want to head off attempts at an international investigation with which Israel is unlikely to cooperate.
The probable collaboration of an Israeli panel with US and European observers would set a new precedent in Israel, though few are sure what the role of the foreign observers would be.
"What does it mean to have an observer? It's not very clear,'' says one Israeli official. "What will be the legal authority?''