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.
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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.
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
“Iran provided Hamas with thousands of rockets, missiles and
other arms” which were used, and are still being used, against Israel, he
“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.
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
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
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
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
, the vessel on which the nine activists were killed.
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
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.
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
“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.
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.