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ISRAEL: Officials testify before Israeli commission examing the flotilla raid

August 10, 2010 |  8:08 pm

Israel's top officials are testifying before the Israeli commission set up to examine the circumstances of the raid on the Gaza flotilla. The Turkel Commission's official mandate mostly concerns questions of compatibility with international law of the naval blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip since January 2009 and Israel's moves to enforce it, including the military interception of the Mavi Marmara that left nine civilians dead. 

This is more for international consumption. The Israeli public is more concerned with the process of decision-making and responsibility, which the committee is reaching for too. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi -- the order of the testimonies reflects hierarchy and has its own dynamic. This is the unplugged version.

First before the committee was Netanyahu.  Netanyahu's testimony was strong on the background for Israel's policies on Hamas but slightly weaker on decision-making issues. Some of his answers raised more questions, leaving unclear the key question of who decided on the military operation. The political echelon wanted the blockade upheld, diplomatic efforts to prevent the flotilla had failed and the ministerial forum discussing the flotilla dealt mostly with media damage control. Somewhere in the middle a military operation was born, his answered seemed to imply. 

Netanyahu said the ministerial group discussed the military's plan only in passing. The army was responsible for that. No decision was made in that forum, and he wouldn't say whether it had considered letting the ships through. He said he had left Barak in charge of flotilla matters as he was out of the country.

Whether it was his intention to distance himself from responsibility or wasn't properly prepared, Netanyahu's testimony was interpreted as unloading the responsibility onto Barak and the army. Fair or not, punditry and political commentary in this vein grew louder and before the day was out, Netanyahu tried to remedy this perception in a series of statements clarifying that the overall responsibility was his. But the damage was done, and the Hebrew press reported Barak was hopping mad.

This doesn't preclude getting even. The following morning, Barak walked in briskly, surveyed the press and smiled at reporters, already in contrast to Monday's slightly glum-looking Netanyahu. And he came prepared, very prepared. Armed to the teeth with documentation of dates, memos and his fabled memory, Barak began to fill in the blanks left by Netanyahu. Right at the top, Barak assumed responsibility, that magical word everyone was waiting to hear. 

Sure he's responsible, he said.  And the prime minister, the ministerial committee, the chief of staff too. In his meticulous documentation of who participated in which meeting that discussed what, Barak name-dropped for nearly two hours, "generously spreading responsibility," as one commentator remarked later. 

But like Netanyahu, he too defended the division of responsibilities. The political echelon decides on the "what," the army decides on the "how." It behooves the first not to give the army assignments that can't be carried out, and the second to warn that an assignment is undoable or not worth the damage. Neither happened in this case, said Barak, who said the "gap" was in implementation, not decision-making. 

Netanyahu said the ministers  discussed only the military plan in passing. Au contraire, said Barak. They had a two-hour detailed discussion including a "plastic and colorful" scenario description, at the end of which the picture was adequately clear, as was the dilemma between breaching the blockade and an unattractive, public confrontation. It was a choice between two evils, said Barak, and everyone understood this. 

Still, the "how" and "what" still stand. Ministers may discuss military scenarios but don't go into details like which side of the helicopter troops use on the way down, said Barak (to this, Channel 10 noted Tuesday evening that as defense minister, Barak had demanded operational changes be made in a "strategic operation").

All eyes will now be on Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who will appear before the committee on Wednesday and deal with all the balls that have been thrown into his court. Speaking as a politician, Barak had defended the division of responsibilities and decision-making. Speaking as a lifelong soldier, he said no operation every goes exactly as planned. The difference between a tidy operation, a messy one or total failure is a hair's breadth. Stuff happens.

Exactly what stuff happened was examined by the army's internal examination, led by Giora Eiland, who found "mistakes" in planning, intelligence and information integration but not "failures."  Parts of it are confidential. The Turkel Commission has his report and will not question soldiers. Israel feels strongly about protecting its soldiers from testifying, certainly not before an external, international body. Israel threatened to withdraw from the U.N. panel after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested soldiers might be questioned. On Tuesday, Barak had likened this to doctors making life-and-death decisions with malpractice suits in mind.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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