The Foreign Ministry, reeling from the bashing Israel has taken over the past week as a result of the Mavi Marmara incident, is recommending that the government quickly agree to an investigative mechanism so as to knock the issue out of the headlines.
Diplomatic officials said that continued and prolonged debate over what type of investigation to conduct and who would be involved would only keep this issue on the international agenda and further erode Israel’s position.
According to one senior diplomatic source, Jerusalem should agree to an investigative committee, even if it included international observers, in order to be able to move on.
“We want to move forward with the Palestinians, we have to deal with Iran, and this is just sapping all our time and energy,” the source said.
The official’s comments came as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was meeting with his top ministers, the forum known as the septet, on Sunday evening to discuss both the type of investigative committee to be established, and how to ease restrictions on civilian goods that will be allowed into the Gaza Strip.
Regarding the type of investigative body to be established, Netanyahu – in a meeting on Sunday morning with Likud ministers – denied reports that he had accepted a proposal from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the establishment of a committee headed by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer, a maritime law expert, which would also include Israeli, Turkish and US representatives.
Netanyahu said he told Ban that a clarification of the facts needed to be done “responsibly and objectively.” The decision to establish an investigative body needed to be taken “with a cool head and carefully,” taking into consideration the IDF and Israel’s national interests.
Netanyahu is believed to favor an Israeli investigative body that would include international observers who will not have the power to question witnesses.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, on the other hand, are reportedly opposed to the idea, not wanting to set a precedent of having IDF soldiers appearing before foreign representatives. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Intelligence Affairs Minister Dan Meridor reportedly do not oppose a committee with an international component, arguing that Israel has nothing to hide.
The prime minister said he told Ban what Israel knew about those who were on the Mavi Marmara
, and that there was a need to establish who organized them, funded them, equipped them and allowed them to get on board. Netanyahu said he spoke over the weekend with US Vice President Joe Biden. On Sunday he also discussed the matter with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Different voices were heard publicly on Sunday regarding whether Israel would agree to the involvement of any international actors in the investigation. Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, for instance, said Sunday on Fox News that Israel “has the ability and the right to investigate itself, not to be investigated by any international board. I don’t think the United States would want an international inquiry into its military activities in Afghanistan, for example.”
But Lieberman, in an interview with Army Radio, said he would not object to international observers overlooking the work of an Israeli committee.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said. “On the contrary, we have an interest in showing that a group of terrorists were organized, who prepared for violence from the beginning, and whose goal was bloodshed.”
One government official said there was a wide consensus among the cabinet ministers that regardless of the type of committee to be set up, it should investigate the politicians and generals, not the soldiers involved in the incident.
The septet on Sunday night also discussed Israel’s blockade of Gaza, amid a flood of international calls for Israel to lift its restrictions on what is allowed into the Strip.
Netanyahu deflected criticism coming from Likud ministers that he was caving into pressure to lift the restrictions, saying at his meeting with them that for the past six months Israel had permitted more and more goods into the Gaza Strip, and that this process would not stop because of the flotilla incident.
Netanyahu told the ministers that Israel was weighing a number of options from various “friendly countries” on this matter. Diplomatic officials said that while Israel would not lift its naval blockade, it would likely continue to allow more and more goods into the area via the land crossings.
Netanyahu, at the weekly cabinet meeting, said Israel would not allow the “free flow of war materiel and contraband” to Hamas via an open sea passage.
At the same time, he said, “we have no desire to make things difficult for the civilian population in Gaza. We would like for goods that are neither war materiel nor contraband to enter Gaza.”
He said that Hamas was preventing the transfer of the goods brought by the ships into Gaza, which “proves it is not the assistance to the residents of Gaza that is important to Hamas, but provocations.”
Netanyahu said the “dozens of thugs from a terrorist organization” who were on the Turkish boat “boarded separately in a different city, organized separately, equipped separately and went on deck under different procedures. In effect, they underwent no checks.”
According to the prime minister, “the clear intent of this hostile group was to initiate a violent clash with IDF soldiers,” and that “this truth is gradually spreading around the world.”
Netanyahu said the flotilla incident was not an isolated one.
“This is a continuous process that enemies of Israel have been orchestrating for years in order to deny Israel the right to defend itself. It began in 2001, with an attempt to arrest Israeli officers abroad and continued in 2004, with similar attempts,” he said.
“Then there was the Goldstone Report, which was born after Operation Cast Lead. This process continues today with the attempt to prevent Israel from stopping the smuggling of missiles and rockets into Gaza.”
Meanwhile, Lieberman and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon left on Sunday for the US, where they will meet with Israeli diplomats, Jewish leaders and the media to explain Israel’s position following the flotilla incident.
Lieberman is not scheduled to meet with any senior American officials.
Israel, meanwhile, began deporting Sunday all 19 pro-Palestinian
activists who were aboard the Irish Rachel Corrie
ship, which was intercepted by the navy over the weekend en route to
Seven foreign nationals – six Malaysians and a Cuban – were deported to
Jordan via the Allenby Bridge land crossing. The remainder of the
activists are expected to be deported via Ben-Gurion Airport or the
Allenby Bridge soon.
The Interior Ministry’s Immigration and Population Authority said eight
activists agreed to sign deportation forms, while 11 Irish and
Malaysian citizens at first refused to sign the orders.
All of the activists were held at a facility at Ashdod Port, before
being transferred to a holding facility at Ben-Gurion Airport.Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.