We Need a State Panel

The government can still decide to set up a state commission of inquiry into the Gaza flotilla and spare the country difficulties and embarrassment, if not much beyond that.

The Turkish flotilla issue and, as it is described in the United Nations' Goldstone Commission report, Israel's Gaza offensive a year and a half ago are similar in that in both cases the Israeli government refrained from establishing an independent state commission of inquiry. Only such a commission will win the confidence of the international community. It may also be able to clear Israel of unfounded accusations.

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss said in an interview on Channel 2 with Haaretz reporter Dana Weiler-Polak that he will examine the personal responsibility of politicians who made decisions in the flotilla incident. This includes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and it's an investigation the decision-makers hope to avoid.

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman was apparently acting in furtherance of the wishes of the prime minister (who in a reply to the comptroller said he has nothing to hide ) to head off an investigation by an institution such as a state commission of inquiry on politicians' preparations in the flotilla case. The members of such a commission are appointed by the Supreme Court president, not by the cabinet or cabinet ministers.

It was Neeman who instead cooked up the selection of Jacob Turkel as chairman of an investigative committee, as well as the other committee members, and made sure its brief would be limited to whether the naval blockade of Gaza conformed with international law. As initially established, the committee was not granted the authority to question witnesses and demand confidential documents.

When the cabinet decided that the committee would serve as a government commission of inquiry, as provided for by law, and that the justice minister would grant it investigatory authority, its mandate was not extended to allow it to investigate politicians' preparations for the flotilla's arrival. Netanyahu will testify before the Turkel Committee and the state comptroller, meaning that political issues will be presented in the same way they have been presented at state commissions of inquiry. However, the Turkel and state comptroller inquiries do not enjoy international stature, which is only reserved for a state commission of inquiry.

What is true regarding the flotilla investigation is also true regarding the events described in the Goldstone report on the fighting in Gaza. The government's refusal to cooperate with the Goldstone Commission has seriously damaged Israel, and the international community is not yet finished with the matter.

The Goldstone report recommended that the Israeli government appoint an independent commission to look into what it called the "serious violations" of international humanitarian law. This recommendation means the report's findings are not final even in the view of its authors. On various occasions, Goldstone himself confirmed that the report is not the last word. Otherwise, the commission would not have called for an independent Israeli commission.

Goldstone did not specify the investigative approach his commission recommended, but by calling it "independent," and based on other statements by him, one can assume he meant a state commission of inquiry such as the Kahan Commission, which in 1983 issued a report on the massacres at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon.

The Supreme Court president at the time, Yitzhak Kahan, appointed himself to head a commission, whose other members were Justice Aharon Barak and Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yona Efrat. For the most part, the commission refuted widespread allegations leveled abroad regarding direct Israeli responsibility for the massacres. It found that the defense minister as well as senior army officers bore indirect personal responsibility for failures in the case.

Reports in the international media on the Kahan Commission's report, which was released simultaneously in Hebrew and English, show it garnered much credibility based in part on the lack of government involvement in appointing the commission's members.

Regarding the investigation of the Gaza flotilla incident, it is not reasonable to decide now on appointing a government committee whose members would be chosen by the Supreme Court president, although that is not impossible. Regarding Operation Cast Lead, the comprehensive inquiries that were conducted under the supervision of the chief military prosecutor can be useful to a state commission of inquiry if one is convened. Such a commission would be able to look into the evidence the Goldstone Commission used and perhaps refute it.

In September 2009, the Goldstone Commission recommended that a prosecutor for the UN Security Council file a complaint with the International Criminal Court if Israel didn't decide within six months to launch its own independent investigation. That period has passed, but the Israeli government can still decide to set up a state commission of inquiry and spare the country difficulties and embarrassment, if not much beyond that.