NAZARETH // Israel quickly reined back expectations yesterday over its agreement to co-operate with a UN investigation into the Israeli army's lethal raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla two months ago.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, had hailed Israel's backing of the investigation on Monday, after weeks of intense international pressure, as an "unprecedented development". It is the first time Tel Aviv has agreed to take part in a UN inquiry involving the country's military. Last year Israel snubbed a UN investigation led by a respected international jurist, Richard Goldstone, that was highly critical of Israel's attack on Gaza in 2008.
As the panel was announced on Monday, Mr Netanyahu declared: "Israel has nothing to hide. The opposite is true. It is in the national interest of the state of Israel to ensure that the factual truth of the overall flotilla events comes to light throughout the world." But faced with stinging rebukes yesterday from Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition party Kadima, for agreeing to the inquiry, government officials began to play down the significance of Israel's concessions to the international community.
Unnamed officials told Ynet, one of Israel's most popular news websites, that the UN panel's powers would be limited to reviewing documents available to Israel's three internal inquiries and a Turkish inquiry, and no military or civilian personnel would be investigated or issued with subpoenas. If any officials are to be questioned directly, the sources added, they would be senior members of the political leadership - perhaps Mr Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak.
That position was confirmed by a terse public statement yesterday defending the government against charges from Ms Livni that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) were being exposed to a damaging UN investigation. "If they had bothered to check," a statement from the prime minister's office read, "they would have found that IDF soldiers and officers will not be investigated by the UN or any other body."
The details of the review panel's mandate are to be determined in the next few days and the committee begins work next week. It is expected to present a progress report in the middle of next month followed by the final report in 2011. Israel and the US appeared to hope that the UN review panel would sideline, or possibly lead to the cancellation of, a parallel inquiry into the flotilla raid already set up by the UN's Human Rights Council. The council established the Goldstone Commission and is seen as hostile by Israel.
Last week, Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet that he was still deliberating "how much technical material to provide them with, if at all". Tel Aviv is reported to fear that an inquiry led by the Human Rights Council may end up becoming a "Goldstone Two". Susan Rice, the US envoy to the UN, said Israel's participation with the review panel would eliminate "the need for any overlapping international inquiries".
Other comments from Ms Rice suggested that the material to be reviewed by the UN would consist of documents made available by the Israeli and Turkish inquiries but not any investigations conducted by the Human Rights Council. Mr Netanyahu's office said contacts with the UN over the past few weeks had ensured that the panel would have had "a balanced and fairly written mandate". Israeli officials were also reported to be making their co-operation conditional on a promise that there would be no subsequent attempts to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court in the Hague for the flotilla raid.
Yesterday, Israeli government ministers defended their decision by stressing the importance of mending the country's relations with Turkey after weeks of diplomatic crisis between the two. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak said they had "no choice" but to agree to the inquiry. The US was reported to have pushed hard for its two main allies in the Middle East to repair the damage. Dan Meridor, a deputy prime minister, told Army Radio Israel that co-operation was "primarily meant, to my knowledge, for Turkey and Israel to find a way to bring relations back to a better place".
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, told the Anatolia news agency that the establishment of the UN panel showed "every country can be held accountable under international law". But Turkish officials also hinted at continuing concerns about how actively Israel would co-operate. A senior Turkish diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "We hope that Israel will be forthcoming with providing access to the panel in gathering information."
Tensions between Israel and Turkey continued to simmer yesterday. Gaby Levy, Israel's ambassador in Ankara, was summoned for what was described as a "dressing down" over remarks made by Mr Barak about Hakan Fidan, Turkey's new intelligence chief. Last week Mr Barak called Mr Fidan a "friend of Iran" who might leak shared secrets to Tehran. The UN's four-person review panel will be headed by Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand, with Alvaro Uribe, the outgoing Colombian president, as his deputy. Israel and Turkey will each appoint a representative.
Of Israel's three inquiries, only the military one has issued a report. The Eiland committee found "errors of judgment" in the planning of the commando raid but held no one accountable. It also blamed the flotilla organisers for instigating the violence. The Turkel committee is due to begin investigations into the legal ramifications of carrying out a raid in international waters. The third inquiry, whose scope is still unclear, will be conducted by Micha Lindenstrauss, the state comptroller.