'US exclusion to give probe credibility'

Cabinet unanimously approves Terkel c'tee; Washington welcomes move.

Turkel 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Turkel 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The US was not interested in representation on the Gaza flotilla probe Israel formally set up Monday because it didn’t want to detract from the credibility of the committee or get in the middle of friction between its two closest Middle East allies, according to diplomatic officials.
The officials said there was concern in Washington that if a US representative sat on the committee, it would – because of the US’s strong support of Israel – detract from the body’s credibility.
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The officials also said that Washington was hesitant to take open and public sides in the rift between Turkey and Israel, preferring to work behind the scenes to reduce the tension.
The US quickly backed Israel’s establishment of the committee, with the White House issuing a statement Sunday evening that came at about the same time Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office released a statement saying it had decided to set up the committee. This type of timing, officials said in Jerusalem, was not coincidental and was a sign of close coordination on the matter.
“The structure and terms of reference of Israel’s proposed independent public commission can meet the standard of a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement Sunday night, echoing the standards of a US-approved UN Security Council decree on the investigation.
“We believe that Israel, like any other nation, should be allowed to undertake an investigation into events that involve its national security,” the White House statement also said. “Israel has a military justice system that meets international standards and is capable of conducting a serious and credible investigation.”
The White House did indicate, however, that it would not be giving Israel a blank check, but monitoring Israel’s undertaking and reserving judgment. There was also no guarantee that the US would use a veto to prevent the establishment of an international committee if Turkey decided to bring the matter to the UN Security Council.
“We will not prejudge the process or its outcome, and will await the conduct and findings of the investigation before drawing further conclusions,” Gibbs said in his statement.
He also stressed that the investigation must be carried out quickly.
Israeli sources explained that the US didn’t want to fully commit to the investigation’s outcome without first seeing how it proceeded. But they noted that the US had green-lighted how Israel had assembled the commission, including international observers from Canada and Northern Ireland.
The cabinet, meeting in a special, three-hour session Monday morning, unanimously agreed to the establishment of the committee, which will be headed by retired Supreme Court judge Ya’acov Terkel, 75; international law professor and Israel prize winner Shabtai Rosen, 93; and Maj.-Gen (res.) Amos Horev, 86, a former president at the Technion.
The panel will, because of the circumstances surrounding the raid on the flotilla, which included foreign nationals from some 12 countries, also include two international observers: Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble, 65, and Ken Watkin, 55, former judge advocate general of the Canadian military.
Netanyahu told the cabinet that the two international observers would be able to question witnesses and take part in the deliberations, but not to vote on the final recommendations. The two men will not have access to sensitive military material if it is deemed that such access would harm national security.
“Two main principles guided us in proposing the establishment of the commission,” Netanyahu said. “First is maintaining IDF soldiers’ freedom of action and the credibility of the IDF investigation. According to the proposal, except for IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF soldiers will not testify before the commission.”
Rather, Netanyahu said, the IDF would transfer to the committee the summaries of the IDF’s own operational investigation, which is being chaired by Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland.
“The second principle that guided us is providing a credible and convincing response to the responsible countries in the international community about the events, especially in the context of international law,” Netanyahu said. “I am convinced that the commission’s uncovering of the facts will prove that the goals and actions of Israel and the IDF were appropriate defensive actions in accordance with the highest international standards.”
Netanyahu, who told the cabinet that he had spoken about the committee’s formation with British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, said he believed the cabinet’s decision “will make it clear to the entire world that Israel acts according to law, transparently, and with full responsibility.”
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office dismissed criticism of the advanced age of the Israeli committee members, saying they were all “lucid” and experts in their respective fields.
The EU foreign ministers, who held their monthly meeting in Luxembourg Monday, issued a statement afterward that did not relate directly to the committee, but which said the EU wanted to see a an “immediate, full and impartial inquiry into these events and the circumstances surrounding them.”
To command the confidence of the international community, the statementsaid, “this should include credible international participation.”
The statement, which one Israeli official described as a “dour-facedendorsement” of the committee Israel had set up, also called for afundamental change in Israel’s blockade policy.
One EU official said that there was a great deal of concern in Europeancapitals over the tension between Israel and Turkey – something theEuropeans feel will only increase instability in the region – and thatthe Europeans would have liked to see Israel go further toward theTurkish demand for an international investigation. In the end, bothEuropean and Israeli officials said, it was likely that the Europeanswould follow the American lead on the matter.
One official said that the reason Trimble was given a spot on thecommittee was to give voice to Israel’s realization that there was aninternational component to the episode, since so many foreign nationalswere on the boat. The Canadian representative was selected, theofficial said, because Canada is widely viewed as an impartial country.
New British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the investigation was“an important step forward,” and welcomed the involvement of Trimble.The Foreign Office issued a statement welcoming the “internationalmembership and broad mandate.”
However, the statement said that “we will await the conduct andfindings of the commission before drawing further conclusions. What isimportant now is that the inquiry is able to proceed swiftly,transparently and rigorously.”
Jonny Paul contributed to this report.