Israel assembles flotilla investigative commission as pressure mounts for internationally led inquiry

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Israel has announced the formation of its own commission to investigate last month’s seizure of an aid flotilla attempting to break the country’s blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza. The operation resulted in the deaths of nine passengers, though Israel maintains that the deaths only occurred because the activists threatened the lives of the soldiers attempting to board one of the boats. The United Nations has expressed a desire for an internationally led inquiry into the incident, but Israel has refused to acquiesce to the body’s request thus far; instead, Israel maintains that its own commission’s report will be sufficient. The New York Times reports:

Israel’s inquiry into the flotilla raid, to be called the Independent Public Commission, will be led by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, Jacob Turkel. It will include two Israeli experts in international law and two foreign observers — Lord David Trimble, a Nobel Peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Brig. Gen. Ken Watkin, former judge advocate general of the Canadian Forces — whose inclusion is intended to add credibility to the inquiry and to secure foreign support for it.

Ben Smith at Politico has some analysis of Trimble’s selection:

“It isn’t a surprise that Trimble has been penciled in by Bibi’s people. He’s an ally,” writes my correspondent, a former NGO worker in Northern Ireland, who recalls: “In a somewhat tragic-comic twist to the N. Ireland – Israel connection such as it is, during various standoffs between loyalist (Protestant) paramilitaries (or just mobs) and their republican (Catholic/IRA) counterparts, the loyalists would fly the Israeli flag, and the IRA/republicans the Palestinian flag.”

Today’s announcement is unlikely to deter Europe and the United Nations from insisting on an independent U.N. investigative panel to look into the deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara. Israel has historically tried to avoid such commissions due to its sense that it is frequently singled out for rebuke by the international community.

The United States will be one of the most important actors in any decisions relating to the investigation, as its influence can help stall or prevent the formation of an international commission or, alternatively, pressure Israel into acquiescing to international pressure. Over the last few days, it unclear how exactly the U.S. would react to differing proposals from Israel and the United Nations. Bill Kristol reported last week that Susan Rice, President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, had successfully convinced the president to support officially “an independent commission, under UN auspices” to handle the investigation. The White House downplayed Kristol’s report to Politico’s Ben Smith, as reported Friday:

The White House official said the administration continues to support “an Israeli-led investigation into the flotilla incident that is prompt, credible, impartial, and transparent.”

“We are open to different ways of ensuring the credibility of this Israeli-led investigation, including international participation, and have been in intensive talks with our Israeli partners in the past few days on how to move forward,” said the official. “We know of no resolution that will be debated at the UN on the flotilla investigation next week.”

Rice expressed clear support for Israel’s investigation on “Fox News Sunday” this weekend. However, when host Chris Wallace asked her about a U.N. investigation, Rice made no indication that the U.S. would actively oppose such an inquiry:

We are not pressuring Israel to participate in anything that it chooses not to participate in. We wouldn’t actually have any role if there were to be a U.N. investigation.

Today, less than 24 hours later, the administration made clear that it supported Israel’s announced commission:

We believe that Israel certainly, as a government, has the institutions and certainly the capability to conduct a credible, impartial and transparent investigation,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, hours after Israel introduced the members of a panel created to probe the Israel Navy raid which killed nine people on May 31.

Farhan Haq, a representative for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, suggested today that support for Israel’s commission need not be mutually exclusive with support for an internationally led investigation.

Meanwhile, Israel is facing increasing pressure from the European Union Foreign Affairs Council to suspend its blockade on Gaza, though the EU is also calling on Hamas to prevent the rocket attacks that necessitated the blockade originally in Israel’s eyes.

Last week, Israel eased the blockade restrictions to allow snacks into the region, but Hamas officials refused to allow access, hoping instead to leverage the conflict into a total lifting of the blockade.