Netanyahu Tells UN: Israel Will Cooperate With Flotilla Probe

PM bows to international and domestic pressure after 2 months

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced yesterday the creation of an international review panel into the Gaza-bound flotilla incident in late May, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed him of Israel's agreement in principle to the idea. The panel and its mandate were established in an agreement between Israel and Turkey, and in the coming days the prime minister's bureau will announce the name of Israel's representative on the panel.

Israel's decision to cooperate with the panel comes two months after Ban first proposed it to Netanyahu, who delayed his answer for some time, first stating that he opposed the proposal and finally giving in only following heavy international pressure.

The prime minister's bureau said yesterday that extensive negotiations had been necessary to achieve a mandate for the panel that Israel would be amenable to. According to sources close to Netanyahu, the breakthrough came only after the prime minister's recent meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. Netanyahu's bureau also said that the establishment of the Turkel Committee had been necessary to prevent a situation in which a UN panel would question Israel Defense Forces soldiers and officers.

Israel's decision to participate in a UN panel investigating IDF actions is a precedent. Moreover, this will be the first time an Israeli representative will take part in a UN panel whose focus is Israel.

The panel will begin its work on August 10, and is to file its first report to the UN Security Council by the middle of September. Heading the panel will be former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, an expert on international maritime law. Vice chairman will be outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who is considered to be pro-Israel and pro-United States. According to the panel's mandate, its conclusions need to be ratified by both its chairman and his deputy.

Turkey has relayed to the UN secretary general the name of a senior diplomat who was director general of Turkish foreign ministry and will most likely be its representative on the panel. Israel has still not named its representative, likely to be a senior diplomat or legal expert.

The panel's mandate is to examine the investigations that Israel and Turkey are carrying out regarding the incident of the Gaza-bound flotilla on May 31. In addition, the panel will seek to examine the facts surrounding the flotilla and recommend ways to avoid such incidents in the future.

The panel will not be authorized to call witnesses - especially no Israeli soldiers or officers. Israel will hand the panel reports on the progress of its own Turkel Committee examining the incident, as well as various written documents concerning the IDF investigations, such as the main points of the report by Major General (res. ) Giora Eiland.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice welcomed the establishment of the review panel and stressed that the U.S. hopes that the decision will render all other international investigations on the flotilla redundant.

"The United States expects that the Panel will operate in a transparent and credible manner and that its work will be the primary method for the international community to review the incident, obviating the need for any overlapping international inquiries," she said.

The U.S. ambassador also said that "this Panel is not a substitute for those national investigations. It complements them, affording Israel and Turkey the opportunity to present the conclusions of their investigations to the international community. The United States also hopes that the Panel can serve as a vehicle to enable Israel and Turkey to move beyond the recent strains in their relationship and repair their strong historic ties."

Diplomatic efforts aimed at setting up the UN review panel were conducted secretly over the past two months. As early as June 4, less than a week after the flotilla incident, the UN secretary general proposed to Israel the establishment of the panel. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded favorably to the proposal but the prime minister told Ban that he would have to consult with his cabinet on the issue.

During that period Lieberman visited New York and met with U.S. Ambassador Rice and with Ban's political adviser. The two convinced Lieberman that the establishment of the review panel is the best option for Israel. Lieberman in turn tried to convince Netanyahu, but the prime minister delayed his decision.

Lieberman said in recent weeks in closed meetings that Netanyahu's "foot dragging" in responding to the secretary general's proposal is "causing political damage to Israel," and added that Israel should have immediately accepted the offer.

During the past month the U.S. administration also pressured Israel to accept the UN's proposal. The Americans argued that Israeli acceptance would prevent further anti-Israeli resolutions at the UN General Assembly or Security Council over the flotilla issue, and may even result in the abolishment of the committee set up by the UN's Human Rights Council in Geneva to investigate the incident.

When Netanyahu met with Rice and Ban in New York last month, the two urged him to agree to the establishment of the review panel, and he appointed his adviser, Yitzhak Molcho, to hold talks with Rice on formulating the panel's mandate. Molcho has traveled to New York secretly a number of times in recent weeks to handle the talks.

A senior political source said that the secretary general made it clear to Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a meeting last Friday in New York that he was unhappy with the delay in the Israeli response as to whether it would agree to the panel's establishment.

Netanyahu held a meeting of the forum of seven senior ministers yesterday, and a decision was made that Israel would participate in the review panel.

The prime minister told Ban by telephone that "Israel has nothing to hide." He added that it is in Israel's national interest that the factual truth about the flotilla be revealed to the entire world.

Some of the seven senior ministers and other senior officials in Jerusalem said yesterday that one of the purposes of the UN review panel is to restore ties with Turkey. Turkey demanded that Israel apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish activists, compensate those injured, lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip and accept an international investigation.

"Everything was made with Turkish agreement," a senior official in Jerusalem said. "Hopefully the combination of lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip and establishing an international investigation will meet the Turkish demands and lead to a restoration of ties."