U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House
U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on Thursday, May 27, 2010. Photo by AP
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The United States has proposed a possible way for Israel to avoid an international probe of the events surrounding the Gaza flotilla, but at this point Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leaning against it, in part because Defense Minister Ehud Barak is opposed to it.

The Americans have proposed that Netanyahu announce that an independent Israeli commission of inquiry will look into the events of the flotilla clashes and accept the participation of an American observer.

On Monday and Tuesday, advisers of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Yitzhak Molcho and Uzi Arad, traveled to Washington. On Tuesday they were at the White House with Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, and met National Security Adviser James Jones, and President Barack Obama's adviser on the Middle East, Denis Ross, as well as Dan Shapiro, who holds the Middle East portfolio at the National Security Council.

One of the main issues discussed was the American demand that Israel investigate the events surrounding the handling of the flotilla.

A senior U.S. official delivered an American proposal to the two senior Israeli advisers, which would both assuage the international community and also would not be too hard a blow for Israel's wish to undertake its own investigation without massive foreign involvement.

The American proposal, which calls for an independent commission of inquiry here, with an American representative as an observer, is believed to offer the idea of bolstering international confidence in the probe's conclusions.

Molcho returned to Israel Wednesday and met with the prime minister to update him on the details of the American proposal.

Political sources in Israel say that Netanyahu is in no rush, at this stage, to accept the American offer. The possibility was not discussed at length during the cabinet meeting on Wednesday. Sources in the prime minister's bureau said it was still too early to talk of a committee of inquiry.

However, several ministers from the "group of seven" who meet to discuss the most sensitive political-military issues and others from the security-political cabinet, said there is urgency for such a probe.

"If we do not do this now at our own initiative, it will be forced upon us by the world," one of the ministers said.

Another minister added that "we must make a decision on this quickly."

International pressure

While there is still uncertainty here about the need for an investigation, the international community is moving ahead. The United Nations Human Rights Council decided Wednesday to dispatch an international committee of inquiry to the region to look into the events of the Gaza flotilla. A total of 32 countries voted in favor of the committee of inquiry, nine abstained and three - the U.S., the Netherlands and Italy - voted against.

The decision is similar to the one that established the Goldstone Committee, which looked into Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip and whose published report accused Israel and Hamas of having committed war crimes.

The Arab states asked the council to condemn Israel for violating international law because it had taken over the flotilla's ships in international waters.

The council's resolution calls on Israel to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip and to provide its residents with food, fuel and medicines.

The resolution's final article states that the council will send an independent, international group to investigate the facts of the incident and any violations of international law as a result of "the Israeli attack against a convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid."

After Wednesday's cabinet meeting, Netanyahu did not comment on the possibility of an Israeli inquiry, but accused the international community of hypocrisy and warned against what he said would lead to transforming the Gaza Strip into an Iranian missile base.

It was Israel's obligation to prevent the import of weapons into the Strip that would be directed against Israel, the prime minister said.

"Iran continues to smuggle weapons to the Gaza Strip that are aimed at Israel," Netanyahu said, and called for the blockade to stay in place.

If ships are allowed to enter Gaza port freely, "the implication would be that there would be an Iranian port in the Gaza Strip, close to Tel Aviv, and this is a genuine threat to Israel's security. I say to you, and to the countries criticizing us, that an Iranian port in Gaza is also a threat to European states."

Senior political sources told Haaretz they see no justification for an external probe. They said the Israel Defense Forces needs to evaluate itself and at most someone from outside the chain of command should be included in the process.

'Self-flagellation'

Calls in Israel for a commission of inquiry were also described by government sources as "exaggerated responses," and they warned against "self-flagellation."

Sources in the political leadership and in the General Staff reject the idea that the operation against the flotilla was a failure and argue it achieved its aim because it stopped the ships from reaching the Gaza Strip.

Another aid ship, the Irish-flagged Rachel Corrie, named after the American peace activist killed by an army bulldozer, is also planning on reaching the Gaza Strip.

The ship is known to be carrying some 15, mostly European and Malaysian, peace activists. The assumption is there will be no violent resistance if the ship is boarded.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi plan to recommend that if necessary, violence be used to stop the ship but lessons learned from the incident Monday will be adopted to prevent bloodshed.

Meanwhile, Israel is trying to calm the tensions with Turkey, and all those arrested in the flotilla incident will be expelled.

In an unusual turn of events, six unidentified bodies of those killed in the incident Monday were sent to Turkey, along with three identified corpses. Usually, only the dead who have been identified are released.