Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Israel backs flotilla probe 'to patch up Turkey ties'

Israel's surprise decision to back a UN probe into its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla was taken in a bid to patch up its ties with Turkey, a senior official said on Tuesday.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Monday announced the creation of a four-member panel to investigate the May 31 raid in which nine Turkish activists were killed, and in a surprising U-turn, Israel gave its blessing to the inquiry.

"We have nothing to be afraid of -- the facts are on our side," a senior government official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We also hope that this panel will help us to improve our relations with Turkey... that it will be a turning point in our relations with Turkey," he said.

Israel has for the past two months consistently rejected diplomatic pressure for an independent probe, with the Jewish state setting up two of its own panels to look into the chaotic pre-dawn raid in international waters.

But Israel's government made a strategic about-turn by agreeing, for the first time ever, to cooperate with a United Nations inquiry into an Israeli military operation.

The volte-face followed weeks of contact between Israel and the UN, and came after deliberations by the Forum of Seven top Israeli ministers to ensure that "this was indeed a panel with a balanced and fair written mandate," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Media reports suggested Israel had come under heavy pressure from Washington to comply with the UN probe -- but the official denied the reports. "Israel took its own decision independently," he insisted.

The UN's Ban first raised the idea of a UN panel just days after the raid, and over the past month Washington has also thrown its weight behind efforts to push Israel into accepting the inquiry, the Haaretz daily reported.

"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," it said.

Last month, the Geneva-based UN Council named its own panel of experts to probe whether the raid breached international law in a move condemned by Israel which would likely jump at the chance to see that probe neutralised.

The decision to cooperate with Ban's probe caused concern in Israel, with some commentators warning it would set a "worrying precedent."

"The government has given in to international pressure and for the first time, a UN commission of inquiry is going to look into the actions of the government and the Israeli army which has created a worrying precedent," political scientist Shlomo Avineri told army radio.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni took the same view but couched it in slightly stronger terms.

"The government's stuttering has placed Israel in a situation in which we have five investigative committees probing one military operation that was small by any standard," she said, her remarks referring to the two UN panels, two internal Israeli committees and another inquiry by Israel's State Comptroller.

"Now Israel is paying the price... in terms of constraints on the operational capability of the IDF (Israel Defence Forces), which is by far the most worrying thing."

Ban's four-man panel will also include Israeli and Turkish participation and is to begin its deliberations on August 10, the UN said on Monday.

Ankara denounced the May 31 raid as a violation of international law and threatened to completely sever ties with Israel unless the Jewish state complied with an international committee, issued an apology and paid compensation to the victims.


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