Israel signals new cooperation with UN over Gaza flotilla

As a fresh round of activist ships prepares to set sail from Lebanon, Israel and the UN have made conciliatory statements on the Gaza flotilla issue that could help repair the fraught relationship – although not completely.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem July 26.

Israel appears to have improved its cooperation with the United Nations over its controversial Gaza policy after coming under pressure from activists seeking to break Israel's sea blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory. The latest fleet of activist ships is preparing to set sail from Lebanon.

On Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said that the aid to Gaza should be delivered by established land routes rather than the sea – a remark that irked Hamas, which blamed the UN for "collaboration" with the Israeli government.

"The UN call to international organizations to use the over-land road to Gaza instead of the sea is unacceptable and illegal," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zahri on Saturday.

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

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that he is mulling with cooperating with Mr. Ban on the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the killing of nine activists during the May 31 intercept of an aid boat with hundreds of activists.

UN-Israel ties were badly injured last year amid the accusations by the UN’s Goldstone commission of Israeli misconduct during the Gaza war. While cooperation over the flotilla raid would repair only one part of the fraught relationship, it could help both sides avoid further controversy.

"The United Nations doesn't want to get caught in the crossfire of these flotillas because they are highly politicized,’’ said a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition remaining anonymous.

Obama friend raising funds for US aid ship

Late last week, Israel's ambassador to the UN made a public appeal to the international body to help stop future aid ships.

A new aid ship organized by a Palestinian businessman is rumored to be planning to set sail from Tripoli within days. Two weeks ago, a Libyan-backed ship challenged Israel’s blockade but decided to deliver its payload through an Egyptian port.

Rashid Khalidi, a Middle East history professor at Columbia University in New York and friend of President Obama, is also reportedly raising funds for a US aid ship.

'We hold Ban in the highest esteem'

Beyond the flotilla affair, Israel wants to court the UN chief as a way of limiting the influence of the international body’s Human Rights council – which sponsored the Goldstone commission and has already commissioned an inquiry of its own into the flotilla affair.

While Israel’s government has come out against cooperating with the inquiry commissioned by the Human Rights council, it sees Ban as a more credible partner.

"You have to distinguish between the two,’’ said an Israeli government official. "The human rights council makes no pretense to be objective. It has a persistent and consistent anti-Israel obsession…. The same cannot be said of the secretary general. In Israel we hold him in the highest esteem.’’

Needed now: progress in peace talks

A former Israeli diplomat who is a critic of the Netanyahu government says that Israel might be getting a dividend from its easing of its blockade of Gaza – made under intense diplomatic pressure following the flotilla.

"Israel eased the boycott meaningfully. Maybe we’ve scored some points at the UN because Israel revealed some sensitivity to the pressure," says Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry.

But he cautioned that Israel-UN ties are still liable to be rocky if there is no progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

At the upcoming UN General Assembly in September, the international body is expected to review whether Israel and Hamas have launched investigations into the charges raised by the Goldstone committee. Israel could also find itself under pressure if the Netanyahu declares an end to a 10-month moratorium on new settlement building.

"The same issues are still around,’’ Mr. Liel says. "Even if there was a positive exchange on the issue of the siege, I don’t think it will help Israel when it comes to the big picture unless things start moving in the talks."


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

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