The Cable

U.S. heavily involved in organizing U.N. flotilla probe

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today announced a new international panel to oversee investigations into the Gaza flotilla incident, a decision that came after heavy U.S. involvement and with the support of the Israeli government. The four-member panel will be led by the former prime minister of New Zealand, Geoffrey Palmer, and the outgoing president of ...

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today announced a new international panel to oversee investigations into the Gaza flotilla incident, a decision that came after heavy U.S. involvement and with the support of the Israeli government.

The four-member panel will be led by the former prime minister of New Zealand, Geoffrey Palmer, and the outgoing president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe. Turkey and Israel will each appoint one member in the coming days, both expected to be high-level diplomats or judicial officials.  It will meet on Aug. 10 and issue its first report in September. U.S. representative to the U.N. Susan Rice issued a statement Monday praising the panel and clearly defining its limits.

"This panel is not a substitute for those national investigations.  It complements them, affording Israel and Turkey the opportunity to present the conclusions of their investigations to the international community," she said. "The focus of the panel is appropriately on the future and on preventing such incidents from recurring."

A U.S. official speaking on background said that Rice was heavily involved in the formation of the panel and met or spoke with several senior Israeli officials about it in the past weeks, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

"The U.S. was in close communication with Israel throughout the process to make sure this ended up in what we felt and they felt was a constructive place and we believe this is a good outcome," the official said.

The Israeli public reaction was a positive one. Netanyahu released a statement saying, "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 and this is exactly the principle that we are advancing."

An Israeli official told The Cable that the panel was a compromise in the face of repeated calls for an international investigation coming from both the U.N. and some of the countries involved, including Turkey.

"We’re not thrilled about it. It’s a kind of compromise but it is in the general framework of an improved political climate," the official said, noting the need to repair relations between Israel and Turkey as well as the positive steps taken by the Arab League in endorsing the move to direct peace talks between the Israeli and Palestinian governments last week in Cairo.

"It’s not investigative. It’s a panel. A fair and balanced panel that allows us to sort of live with it," the official said. Notably, this is the first time an Israeli will sit on a U.N. panel that is commenting on Israeli actions.

The new U.N. panel will likely head off an inquiry by the U.N. Human Rights Council, based in Geneva. That body, which includes several countries critical of Israel, might have launched its own investigation if Ban had not acted.

The U.S. involvement in forming the panel has a tinge of self-interest as well. Had the Human Rights Council been allowed to proceed, that might have created a precedent paving the way for future investigations into U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Palestine Liberation Organization praised Ban’s panel as a victory for those who have been fighting for an international investigation and believe it will take a new look into the flotilla incident.

"We are very happy that at the end of the day, despite the refusal in the beginning to go along with this position … that Israel finally complied with this global consensus regarding the need for this international investigation," the PLO’s "permanent observer" at the U.N., Riyad Mansour, told The Cable in an interview.

Mansour said his understanding is that the panel will investigate the incident from scratch, with an eye toward bringing anyone who violated international law to justice — a description that appeared to be at odds with the more limited scope put forth by Rice.

"The next issue will be where the report of this panel will be dealt with. We believe it should be the Security Council, because it was the Security Council who requested it," Mansour said.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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