Under U.S. Pressure, Netanyahu May Ease Gaza Blockade

PM considers easing naval blockade on Gaza; Clinton: We are evaluating ways of expanding flow of aid to Gaza while protecting Israel's interests.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to consider easing the naval blockade of Gaza and involving international players in its enforcement.


In so doing, he is acceding to pressure from Washington, which opposes continuing the blockade in its present format and demands that Israel make it easier to send civilian goods to Gaza.

But while he is willing to have the blockade focus mainly on preventing arms smuggling to Hamas and to allow international involvement in supervising Gaza-bound cargoes, he insists on carefully scrutinizing any proposals to ensure their feasibility, rather than making a hasty decision in response to pressure stemming from Monday's botched raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

And so far, he has no plans to ease the land blockade.

Easing the naval blockade is part of an "exit strategy" that Washington devised in separate talks with Israel and Turkey. It will also include an investigation into the legality of the raid.

On Wednesday, as a gesture to Ankara, Israel released all the flotilla's passengers without instituting criminal proceedings against them.

In his speech on Wednesday, Netanyahu stressed that it would be possible to bring huge quantities of arms into Gaza by sea ¬ far more than are now arriving via the smuggling tunnels from Sinai. He also warned that Iran is trying to supply Hamas with rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv.

On Thursday, Netanyahu held a series of discussions on whether and how to investigate the raid. He opposes any probe that would force Israel Defense Forces soldiers and officers to "lawyer up" before embarking on an operation, saying that would destroy the IDF's ability to fight. Therefore, he objects to either a state commission of inquiry or a governmental inquiry panel, or to any probe of the army's decision-making process.

However, he is willing to investigate two issues: whether it was legal to conduct such a raid in international waters, and whether Israel used excessive force. Senior Israeli officials believe the respective answers are "yes" and "no": International law permits defensive operations on the high seas, and the use of force was reasonable and proportionate. Had the soldiers not been attacked by the Mavi Marmara's passengers, no casualties would have occurred ¬ just as none occurred on the other five ships.

On Monday, the day of the raid, Netanyahu asked U.S. President Barack Obama to veto any UN Security Council condemnation of Israel, but Obama refused. He did soften the declaration's wording, but not by as much as Israel would have liked.

Following a meeting with Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented on the issue, saying that "we are evaluating ways of expanding the flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza while protecting Israel's legitimate security interests."

"There's a great deal of consultation going on, as well as work in our own government, to determine ideas that we would share with the Israelis and other international partners, because as I have said before, we have to deal with the situation in Gaza in a way that both protects Israel's legitimate security interests and fulfills the needs of the people of Gaza. And that is what we're seeking," she added.

Clinton also reiterated the U.S. position that "we expect the Israeli government to conduct a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation that conforms to international standards and gets to all the facts surrounding this tragic event."

"We are open to different ways of assuring that it is a credible investigation, including urging appropriate international participation," she said.