Israelis have mixed feelings about flotilla inquiry

With a sense of relief and a touch of anxiety, Israelis braced themselves Monday for another high-profile probe of their military’s conduct.

Relief stemmed from the hope that an Israeli-led commission, approved by the government Monday, will head off U.N. calls for an international inquiry into Israel’s May 31 raid on an aid flotilla seeking to break its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists were killed in the operation.

Anxiety persists, however, because recent inquiries into the military have led to political shake-ups and painful soul-searching.

The new panel, which to be led by a retired Israeli Supreme Court judge and include two foreign observers, marks the third time in four years that Israel’s use of military power has come under scrutiny.

After the 2006 Lebanon war, the government-led Winograd Commission issued blistering criticism, faulting top-level decision-makers and spurring changes in the military.

After the 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip 18 months ago, Israel rejected international pressure to set up an independent probe and instead ended up with the Goldstone Commission, created by the United Nations over Israel’s protests. The commission concluded that Israel committed war crimes, leaving many here bitter over what they saw as a U.N. bias against their country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent the last two weeks searching for a process that would win the endorsement of the U.S. and appear credible to the international community, but not spiral out of the government’s control.

To that end, the five-member panel will have a narrow mandate. It is chiefly tasked with evaluating the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, imposed three years ago when the Islamic militant group Hamas established full control over the coastal strip, and whether the use of force during the raid was consistent with international practices. The commission also will look into the identity and motivations of activists aboard the ship, some of whom Israel has accused of having links to terrorist groups.

Netanyahu said during a Cabinet meeting Monday that the commission’s work would “make it clear to the entire world that the state of Israel acts according to law, transparently and with full responsibility.”

But critics noted that the commission lacks a free hand to set its own mandate and doesn’t have the independence and investigative authority of a so-called national inquiry commission, which is appointed by the Supreme Court and has subpoena powers.

In recent days, one newspaper dismissed the committee as a “debating club,” and a radio commentator called it “coffee without caffeine.”

“This committee is on such a low rung I hesitate whether it can be called an investigation committee at all,” said Moshe Negbi, a legal commentator on Israel Radio.

He questioned whether the committee, which will not be permitted to question soldiers or commanders involved in the raid, will be able to determine whether top military or political leaders acted properly.

That’s the question most Israelis are beginning to ask. Though few people wanted to see an international probe sorting through the country’s dirty laundry, there is a growing domestic backlash over the raid.

Opposition leaders tried and failed last week to win a no-confidence vote, accusing the prime minister of embarrassing and isolating Israel. An opinion poll Friday in the Makor Rishon-Hatzofe newspaper found 45% of respondents judged Netanyahu’s handling of the flotilla affair as poor.

The creation of the commission also did little to appease Turkey, once a key Muslim ally that is now threatening to break diplomatic relations over the high-seas raid. The ship on which the nine slain Turks were traveling, the Mavi Marmara, was sailing under a Turkish flag.

“We have no confidence in the fact that Israel, a country that has committed such an attack on a civilian convoy in international waters, will conduct an impartial investigation,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters Monday.

Turkey is calling for international sanctions against Israel.

The White House late Sunday called the commission an “important first step,” but the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has also made a formal request for information on how some Americans were injured or killed during the raid and a subsequent demonstration in Jerusalem, according to U.S. officials and Israeli news reports.

One of the nine activists killed, Furkan Dogan, held dual U.S.-Turkish citizenship. Another U.S. citizen on board, Ken O’Keefe, has accused Israeli soldiers of beating him while in custody. A third American, Emily Henochowicz, lost sight in one eye during the protest when she was hit with a tear gas canister.

Meanwhile, several groups are vowing to send additional ships to attempt to break Israel’s cordon of Gaza. One of the most potentially provocative comes from Iran, where aid groups say they plan to send ships carrying humanitarian supplies.