Jacob Turkel
Jacob Turkel: Former Israeli Supreme Court justice. Photo by Emil Salman
Text size

The Turkel Committee that is investigating the handling of last month's Gaza-bound flotilla - otherwise known as the "independent public committee" - convened last week for a preparatory meeting. The committee is a kind of Israeli council of sages whose purposes are to examine whether the naval blockade and the way it was enforced were compatible with international law, and to placate the world, especially the United States.

But the two foreign observers who will grace the made-in-Israel committee - who have no right to vote or to sign off on the report - will not be enough to convince anyone that the committee is of sufficient stature to obviate the need for an international commission of inquiry, or to ensure that the U.S. will oppose an international inquiry.

The government, according to its own press statement, established the committee "in consultation with the justice minister and the attorney general." The statement does not say their advice on how to proceed was accepted, but simply that they were consulted.

The prime minister, justice minister and their advisers carefully chose the committee's members, who for some reason do not include anyone with clear expertise in the specific relevant fields, such as international maritime law or the laws of war. Only one committee member, Prof. Shabtai Rosenne, has expertise in international law at all. The committee was intentionally chosen to conduct a quiet and not overly energetic investigation into the legality of the naval blockade and its enforcement, while being mindful of outward appearances.

The committee is "independent" in the sense that its members are not connected to the Prime Minister's Office or the defense establishment. But that is far from the true independence conferred by being able to use the full range of investigative powers provided for by law. In Israel, such authority is reserved for a state commission of inquiry operating under the Commissions of Inquiry Law. Such a commission has full investigative powers, and its members are appointed by the Supreme Court president, which underlines its absolute independence.

Nevertheless, a similar arrangement exists for governmental inquiry committees, whose members are appointed by a cabinet minister or ministers in accordance with the Government Law. That law allows the cabinet to give such a panel full investigative powers if it is headed by a retired judge. The cabinet indeed gave such powers to the Winograd Committee, which examined the Second Lebanon War, after then-prime minister Ehud Olmert carefully chose its members.

But this latest public committee is neither a state commission of inquiry nor a governmental inquiry committee. It is no more than a forum of people whose wings have been clipped, and it is entirely dependent on the goodwill of the prime minister, cabinet ministers and other officials who will be called to testify before it and submit documentation.

The cabinet's decision allowed the committee to decide whether its meetings will be open or closed to the public. However, the decision stated categorically that the committee may not hold open hearings on matters that could endanger Israel's security or foreign relations. Thus should the committee make the correct decision and open most of its sessions to the public, it might anger the government, which in turn might retaliate by reducing its level of cooperation with the inquiry.

The committee's chairman, retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, distinguished himself in the past by rulings that supported almost total freedom of expression and viewed the press as the public's agent in procuring and disseminating information. Now, he will be expected to protect the public's right to know - a right without which the committee would be pointless.

The public committee was not given a mandate to investigate issues such as the nature of the government's preparations for a possible attempt to breach the naval blockade. On the other hand, several state commissions of inquiry, such as the Agranat Commission and the Kahan Commission, pushed the boundaries of their authority and examined whatever they thought was necessary to clarify the big picture. A public committee could do the same, and it is doubtful that the government would try to stop it.

Indeed, it is hard to see how the committee could examine the military circumstances that resulted in the naval blockade - which it has been charged to do - and issue a well-crafted, credible report on the subject without looking at the wider picture.

If the committee, as its chairman has promised, presents a sharp, clear picture in the reasonably near future as to what happened and what should have happened, it will turn the tables on its creators and become more than a council of sages. The public will then see that the panel's members are still vigorous, even if two of them are much older than the mandatory retirement age for judges, which is 70.