Defense Minister Ehud Barak presented himself Tuesday in front the Turkel Commission to give his version of the Gaza flotilla events, a day after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he had left Barak in charge of the matter before flying to North America for diplomatic meetings.

The IDF raid on a Turkish ship trying to break the Gaza blockade, during which nine Turks were killed, took place on May 31, while Netanyahu was in Canada for meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

RELATED:
Analysis: Committees are one thing...
Opinion: Is the Turkel Commission the end of Goldstone?
'Flotilla probes are out of line'

Netanyahu was scheduled to meet US President Barack Obama the next day in Washington.

Asked by committee chairman Jacob Turkel, a retired Supreme Court justice, whether his absence from the country had any impact on how the crisis was managed, Netanyahu, toward the end of his testimony, said he gave clear directives before he left that Barak would be in charge of the issue “in all of its aspects.”

“We anticipated not only the IDF operation to stop the ship, but also the international problem, and I asked the defense minister to coordinate the entire matter,” Netanyahu said.

Within minutes of these comments, Netanyahu came under fierce political attack, especially from Kadima, for what it said was the prime minister’s attempt to shift responsibility for the incident to Barak.

“Netanyahu’s testimony to the Turkel Commission proves once again that there is no leadership,” Kadima said in a statement. “At the moment of truth, he put the blame on others and made the IDF into a punching-bag.”

Kadima head Tzipi Livni wrote the Turkel Committee on Monday night asking that it allow her to testify about her role in the decision to impose a maritime blockade on the Gaza Strip when she was foreign minister in former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s government.

She said she wanted to present all the diplomatic and security considerations that went into the decision, which she said Netanyahu did not explain properly in his testimony.

“Unlike Netanyahu, who proved today that he does not take responsibility in the moment of truth and throws it on others, Livni accepts responsibility and asks to appear before the committee,” a source close to the opposition leader said.

PM: The overall responsibility always falls on me

Netanyahu’s office, feeling that his words before the committee were being taken out of context, issued a clarification soon after his appearance stating that he said upon leaving the hearing that “as prime minister, the overall responsibility always falls on me, whether I am in the country or abroad, and that was the case in this instance as well.”

Netanyahu was the first witness to appear before the committee, and his testimony was divided into two parts: a 90-minute public session, which began with a prepared statement followed by a number of questions from the committee, and an hour-long session behind closed doors. On a number of occasions during the public session, specifically addressing relations with Turkey, Egypt and the US, Netanyahu requested that his testimony be given in camera.

The prime minister began by trying to place the whole incident in context, saying that to understand what happened, it was necessary to clarify the government’s policy toward Hamas.

Over the past decade, Netanyahu said, Hamas had increasingly received aid from Iran “which also calls to erase Israel from the map,” and has essentially turned the area into “Hamastan.”

“Iran provided Hamas with thousands of rockets, missiles and other arms” which were used, and are still being used, against Israel, he said.

“Since this committee is dealing with the question of international law,” he testified, “I want to point out that Hamas is in violation of at least four war crimes: the call for genocide, fire directed at civilians, the use of civilians as human shields, and preventing the Red Cross from visiting kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit.”

'Gaza restrictions eased because they became diplomatic burden'

Netanyahu said his government decided to ease restrictions on what was allowed into Gaza because with time they had become a diplomatic and public diplomacy burden that provided ammunition for Israel’s enemies and eroded international support for the more important policy of keeping weapons out of Gaza.

He said that a more liberal policy of what was allowed into Gaza did not succeed in doing away with the international perception that there was a humanitarian crisis.

“Elements hostile to Israel used the unfounded argument about a humanitarian crisis inside Gaza to try to break the sea blockade,” Netanyahu said, adding that this was the reason Hamas encouraged the various flotillas. He added that at a meeting of the septet five days before the Gaza flotilla incident, he spoke of the need to “sharpen” Israeli policy toward Gaza in light of attempts to question the legitimacy of the security blockade due to “lies” about a humanitarian crisis.

At that meeting, the ministers – Netanyahu said – spoke about the media, public relations and diplomatic aspects of the event, but did not deal with the operational component of how exactly the IDF would prevent the ships from reaching Gaza.

Netanyahu said that all the ministers in the septet – “without exception” – said that despite the expected damage to Israel’s image, the blockade needed to be enforced “because of its importance for Israel’s security.”

Because of the large number of vessels in the Gaza flotilla, Netanyahu said Israel tried through diplomatic channels to prevent them from setting sail – or at least to convince the organizers to dock in Ashdod or El Arish, and then send the cargo overland to Gaza.

Barak was in contact with Turkish FM prior to flotilla

Diplomatic efforts were directed toward the UN and those countries whose citizens were participating in the flotilla or whose docks were being used by the ships, including Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, Britain and, “first and foremost, Turkey itself.” Netanyahu said his office had been in direct contact with the highest level of the Turkish government, and that Barak had been in contact with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whom the defense minister has known for years.

Netanyahu said Israel did not hear any public message from the Turkish government to tamp down the “fervor” of the IHH activists on the Mavi Marmara, the vessel on which the nine activists were killed.

“Apparently, the Turkish government did not see the possible friction between the Turkish activists and Israel as anything that ran contrary to its interests, and certainly nothing that justified using effective pressure against the IHH activists,” he said. “Despite our continuous diplomatic efforts, ultimately the Turkish government did not prevent the attempt by the Marmara to violate the naval blockade. It appears that (Turkey) did not see in the prospect of a clash between Turkish activists and Israel something that clashed with its interests.”

Netanyahu said that 14 days prior to the flotilla, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and their Brazilian counterpart for a public declaration on a deal to transfer Iranian uranium abroad that was contrary to the position of the US and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council.

“Turkey thereby strengthened its identification and cooperation with Iran just days before the flotilla,” he said.

Netanyahu added that not only did the IHH activists not try to find a way out of a confrontation, they declared they were looking for it, that they wanted to break the blockade and that the Jews “needed to return to Auschwitz.”

Netanyahu said he gave instructions on how to reduce the hasbara damage from the flotilla, including embedding foreign reporters with IDF troops so that they could see and film for themselves what was happening and prevent distorted coverage. He said he wanted complete coverage to prevent distortions and libel against the IDF – as had occurred during the IDF’s operation in Jenin in 2002, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9.

Netanyahu said that at the beginning of the raid on the Mavi Marmara, the first reports claimed that IDF soldiers killed peaceful activists.

“Only when a video was distributed a couple hours afterward did the truth begin to come out. Imagine what would have happened had we not had those videos,” he said.

Netanyahu concluded his opening statement by saying the commandos were “brutally” attacked by activists with metal bars, clubs, knives and even guns.

“The soldiers acted in self defense,” he said.

“We took great measures to prevent physical harm, but the soldiers have the right to defend themselves.”

In addition to Turkel, the committee – officially called “The Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of May 31, 2010” – is made up of Prof. Shabtai Rosenne, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Horev, former Foreign Ministry director-general Reuven Merchav, and Prof. Miguel Deutch. They are joined by two foreign observers: David Trimble from Northern Ireland, and retired Canadian Brig.- Gen. Ken Watkin. Watkin joined his Israeli colleagues in asking Netanyahu a question.

Barak’s testimony before the panel on Tuesday will be followed by that of IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi on Wednesday.

Abe Selig and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger