Turning a Blind Eye

The investigatory body that was established this week to look into the botched raid on the flotilla is not up to the task - but not because of its members' ages

Every child in England in the past 200 years was raised on the example of the great Admiral Horatio Nelson. The message he conveyed by means of signaling with flags to his officers and sailors during the Battle of Trafalgar - "England expects that every man will do his duty" - embodied the spirit of sacrifice on behalf of the homeland which Nelson, who won the battle but was mortally wounded, symbolized. In an earlier battle, when his commander, Hyde Parker, signaled Nelson to cease fighting, the latter failed to see the flags, after lifting his telescope to his blind eye.

Shabtai Rosenne is a 93-year-old English lad, who grew up on the heritage of Nelson and during World War II served in the Royal Air Force. An expert on international law, he became particularly fond of naval law, which he studied and taught in England before joining the foreign service of the newly established State of Israel. Later Rosenne was a moving force behind Israel's struggles in the area of maritime law, particularly with respect to the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal.

It was Rosenne who was sent to Argentina 50 years ago to handle the legal imbroglio that erupted following the kidnapping of a citizen named Adolf Eichmann. And now, in the 10th decade of his life, he has the opportunity to do "reserve duty" for the homeland one more time. Rosenne will extricate Israel from the depths of the Mavi Marmara debacle. He knows what his country expects of him.

The statement that endeared Rosenne to the man who brought him back from the past and into the present was declared six years ago, when the renowned jurist received The Hague Prize for International Law: "I am not here making any extravagant claims for international law as the cure for all the world's ills, and sometimes the lawyer, like Admiral Nelson is reputed to have done, must put his telescope to his blind eye."

Rosenne is the central figure in the investigatory committee headed by Jacob Turkel, who himself is armed mainly with an important prefix: "former Supreme Court justice." The other panel member, Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Amos Horev, is experienced in many security-related fields, but none encompass the issues under discussion in the Turkel committee.

It would be inaccurate, however, to say that Horev has no experience in maritime operations: Sixty-two years ago this month, a dangerous ship appeared opposite the Tel Aviv coast, by the name of Altalena, and its passengers threatened to storm the Palmach pre-state militia headquarters on the beach. Horev and Yitzhak Rabin, armed with hand grenades, stood in the breach. (The Altalena carried ammunition and illegal immigrants from France to Israel under the auspices of the Etzel underground, and in a direct challenge to the authority of the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli government. It was destroyed by the army in Tel Aviv harbor, and 21 were killed. )

The focus on the ages of Turkel, Rosenne and Horev does them an injustice. Anyone who wants youthful investigators is playing dangerously by turning to the Supreme Court, whose members must be younger than 70. But as to the issue at hand, who really wants to investigate and who really wants judges? We want attorneys who will represent their client, the state, before the world. Why does the age of the members of the Turkel panel bother anyone, in a country where various supreme arbiters are almost 90 years old (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas )?

The law declares that the government is "permitted" to decide on the establishment of an investigative body, if it "has seen that there is an issue of vital public interest at the time that requires clarification." But in reality, the government is obligated, and not only permitted, to investigate - if that is what the U.S. administration has decided. The same thing happened after the attack on the American espionage ship USS Liberty, in June 1967; in the wake of the Jonathan Pollard affair; and following Israeli weapons sales to China. The Mavi Marmara affair provided an excuse to bring up the Liberty incident once again. Last week, Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution, published a harshly anti-Israel column that cast doubt on the claim that there was a mistake in identification of the Liberty; in his opinion, the attack on it is similar to the Mavi Marmara incident. For good measure, for the purpose of another swipe at Israel, Ebinger also pulled Pollard out of his cell for a moment.

In the Mavi Marmara incident no Americans were injured, with the exception of a Turk with dual citizenship, who was killed, but U.S. President Barack Obama rallied to rescue the drowning regional political process. He is the real observer watching the Turkel committee from above. And he is not at the mercy of the Shin Bet security service, the Military Intelligence security-information department or the security arm of the defense establishment, which will decide what Turkel is allowed to reveal to international observers David Trimble and Ken Watkin.

It would be interesting to know whether Watkin and Trimble understood, when they agreed to put their reputations on the line for Israel, that they won't have any advantage over newspaper readers. The security officer who will speak through the person of the panel chairman will be "permitted to decide that certain documents or certain information will not be revealed to the observers, if he thinks that revealing the material to them is almost certain to cause genuine harm to the security of the country or its foreign relations." That condition has constituted the legal basis of the work of the military censor for the past 20 years. Watkin and Trimble will be allowed to see only material that can be published, because the censor will be unable to justify banning something they have already seen.

He who dares

At midnight on Sunday, the government secretariat distributed 14 pages to the 30 ministers, and to aides and advisers. The documents included a cover letter from the cabinet secretary, a draft proposal to establish "an independent public committee," some explanations and a legal opinion - not that of the attorney general, but rather from the legal adviser to the Prime Minister's Office. Ministers who bothered to peruse the material would have discovered mainly a recycled heap of sentences and paragraphs copied verbatim from one section of the document to another.

At that morning's cabinet meeting, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz philosophized about David Stirling, head of the British Special Air Service commandos in the Western desert of North Africa during World War II, who failed at first in some missions, but thanks to perseverance, survived and achieved great things. Some of the ministers didn't get Steinitz's drift, but that couldn't be said of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who quickly contributed one of his own experiences to the discussion: Stirling's motto - "He who dares wins" - was adopted by the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit, which Barak once headed.

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who was sitting at the end of the table next to Ministers Avishay Braverman and Yossi Peled, set a trap for himself when he established a team of experts headed by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Giora Eiland before the announcement of the Turkel committee, which will have to wait for the Eiland report's conclusions. Eiland and Ashkenazi were insulted when they read the criticism launched at them - to the effect that the army panel had been primed in advance to give a forgiving report vis-a-vis the IDF's actions. Now as far as the IDF is concerned, both of the possible outcomes are problematic: If the Eiland report is not tough, the first suspicion will be proven; if it is harsh, the politicians will be happy to have the public attention diverted to the failures of the army rather than focusing on them.

Eiland is supposed to investigate only the IDF, not the Mossad, the National Security Council, or the defense minister's bureau - all of which worked in cooperation with the army and are the recipients of military documents. Barak will find it difficult to explain any refusal to cooperate with the Eiland team, and prefers not to recall the investigative committees he faced as chief of staff, from Tze'elim Bet (a 1992 training accident in which five Sayeret Matkal commandos were killed ) to the massacre in the Tomb of the Patriarchs two years later.

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss will also look into the flotilla incident. He can be sharp-tongued, but in the end, everything will depend on the Knesset and the public. The security division of the State Comptroller's Office is skilled, experienced and objective, and is staffed by colonels in the Israel Navy, among them commanders of missile boats, and an ex-intelligence officer in the Shayetet 13 naval commandos. The law also allows the comptroller to recruit an expert to aid in the investigation - perhaps, for example, from among the brigadier generals who were ousted when Adm. Eliezer (Chiney ) Marom was appointed commander of the navy. Also available are former commanders of the navy, among them Rear-Admiral (ret. ) Shmuel Tankus, who is not yet 96. Lindenstrauss would do well to grab him before Turkel beats him to it and signs him on.