Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed visibly unprepared for his public testimony before the Turkel Committee yesterday - hesitating over key details, evading questions and finally publishing three statements clarifying and even denying what he had said just hours earlier.
To prepare for his testimony to the panel, which is investigating Israel's May raid on a Turkish-sponsored aid flotilla to Gaza, Netanyahu consulted attorney Avigdor Klagsbald and held several meetings with his advisors. But while his opening address, in which he enumerated Hamas' crimes and Israel's attempts to persuade the Turkish government to stop the flotilla, went smoothly, the subsequent questions - on issues such as the government's decision-making process, Israel's intelligence on the flotilla and Netanyahu's personal responsibility for the incident - showed no evidence of these preparations.
He refused to answer six questions entirely, saying he would do so only at a closed hearing. And he said he didn't know the answers to many other questions - such as how much humanitarian aid was entering Gaza before the raid.
But the Turkel Committee's spokesman, Ofer Leffler, said Netanyahu did answer all six questions in his subsequent closed-door testimony, and had promised to respond in writing to those to which he did not know the answers yesterday.
At the open session, the committee chairman, former Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, asked who decided on the raid. Netanyahu replied that it was the Israel Defense Forces' decision. The only orders the government gave the army, he said, were "to carry out the operation with minimal friction, and as far as possible without harm to life or limb."
"So effectively, the IDF is the one that later chose the method?" Turkel asked.
"Yes, that's standard practice," Netanyahu replied.
He was unable to recall the date of the only meeting the "septet," his panel of seven top ministers, held on the flotilla - the one at which the raid was approved - and had to consult the meeting's minutes before he could give the answer: May 26. But he admitted that the septet never thoroughly discussed all the ramifications of a military operation; it focused mainly on the diplomatic and public-relations angles. The septet brainstormed on how to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza, he said, and "I received several ideas, issued a few instructions ... But we didn't get into a discussion of the operation's details, aside from the media effect."
Asked by Turkel whether the government considered nonmilitary options for enforcing the Gaza blockade, Netanyahu said no. "I said the IDF should examine the various options for carrying out the order," he said.
Another panel member, Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Amos Horev, asked whether the government considered letting the flotilla reach Gaza - an option Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser had recommended to the septet, saying it would cause the least diplomatic damage. But Netanyahu said he would only answer that at a closed session.
Panel member Miguel Deutsch, a jurist, asked whether the septet heard any assessments on the likelihood of resistance by the Mavi Marmara's passengers. "It arose incidentally, as part of a discussion on the problem of friction, the public-relations problem that could arise," Netanyahu answered - indicating that the septet gave little thought to the possibility of a battle between soldiers and passengers.
Netanyahu was in Toronto when the raid took place, and Turkel asked whether that affected supervision of the operation, "or whether, once the order was given, no more supervision or involvement by you or your stand-in was necessary?"
"I left explicit orders that the person responsible for dealing with the flotilla, in all its aspects, was the defense minister [Ehud Barak]," Netanyahu replied. "I asked him to convene the septet's ministers if necessary, and also to activate me from abroad ... I wanted there to be a single address. He was that address during my stay in [North] America. The reason I went to America is that I had a very important meeting with the president of the United States [after the Toronto visit]."
This statement, however, infuriated Barak, as it appeared to put the blame on him. That caused Netanyahu to summon the media later for a hasty traction: "As prime minister, I always bear overall responsibility, whether I'm here or abroad, and the same was true in this case."
He also retracted some of his other statements, such as that the septet's discussion focused mainly on "the media effect."
Netanyahu told the panel that information about the flotilla and its organizers, the Turkish group IHH, first reached Israel in April. "The goal of the flotilla's organizers was to foment a well-publicized clash on the high seas with the IDF and generate international pressure to remove the naval blockade," he said. "That's the material we had in our hands. It was in my hands as prime minister, it was in the hands of the defense minister, the foreign minister and the ministers of the septet, and of course it was in the hands of all the professional agencies involved in enforcing the blockade - the IDF and the other security agencies."
He added that "all the ministers of the septet, without exception, expressed the view that despite the expected public-relations damage, the blockade policy must be enforced, because of the matter's importance to Israel's security."
Israel tried hard to stop the flotilla diplomatically first, including numerous conversations between his staff and senior Turkish officials, Netanyahu said. While he would elaborate on these talks only at a closed session, he said they began on May 14, continued "until the evening the flotilla arrived opposite the coast of Gaza" on May 31, and involved "the very highest levels of the Turkish government."
Israel also contacted several other governments whose citizens participated in the flotilla, or whose ports might be visited by it, including Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Ireland and Britain. Netanyahu said he personally called a senior Egyptian official - apparently President Hosni Mubarak - on May 27 to ask for Egypt's help in persuading Turkey to stop the ships from sailing. But Ankara adamantly refused to intervene, or even to try to moderate the organizers' violent rhetoric.
"Apparently, the Turkish government didn't see possible friction between Turkish activists and Israel as contrary to its interests," he said, noting that "in the days before the flotilla, Turkey increased its solidarity and cooperation with Iran."
No Israeli diplomatic effort "could have prevented the Marmara's intention to try to break the blockade," Netanyahu concluded.
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