Netanyahu, Barak defend actions at Gaza flotilla inquiry

Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi appeared this week before the Turkel Commission investigating the action against the flotilla to Gaza, in which nine Turkish activists were killed on the Mavi Marmara ferry.

The Israeli leaders justified the operation while acknowledging mistakes in advance planning and intelligence-gathering.

Mr Netanyahu said on Monday that Israel tried over weeks to convince the Turkish government to prevent the flotilla from sailing to Gaza. He said: "All those concerned thought the operation was the last resort and it was to be done with minimum friction. That was the order and the IDF considered various options."

Mr Netanyahu was en route to Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama during the operation. He defended his absence, saying: "I left specific instructions that the Defence Minister is in charge of all aspects of dealing with the flotilla."

Mr Netanyahu's account was criticised for putting the blame on Mr Barak. He clarified his statement at a press conference later in the day: "I hold the responsibility."

The Defence Minister, who appeared the next day, defended the government's decision: "It was a reasonable decision taken by a group of senior ministers." He placed responsibility on the IDF: "The political level specified the 'what' and the IDF decided the 'how' and executed it."

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak said the cabinet meeting on the flotilla dealt mainly with diplomatic and media aspects of the operation. Mr Barak acknowledged that Mr Ashkenazi voiced reservations at the meeting, but said: "We can do it."

Mr Ashkenazi appeared on Wednesday. He said: "I carry responsibility for all the army's actions. The operation carried out by the naval commandos on the Marmara was proportional and correct. The fighters showed presence of mind, bravery and morals. I am proud of them."

Mr Ashkenazi acknowledged that the IDF had insufficient intelligence on the IHH Turkish Islamic movement that organised the flotilla. "We did not investigate them," he said, "they were not a priority for us like other organisations. Turkey is not an enemy nation."

The committee formed by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to investigate the flotilla began its meetings on Wednesday. Mr Netanyahu's office said this week that if the UN committee called on Israeli soldiers and officers to give evidence, it would cease cooperating. Mr Ki-Moon's spokesman said the panel's mandate was to investigate the incident with a view to drawing lessons for the future, not assigning individual culpability.

    Last updated: 11:47am, August 12 2010