Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak conflicted with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public testimony on a Gaza flotilla raid, telling an investigating panel that Cabinet ministers discussed possible scenarios for violence.
Testifying yesterday after Netanyahu appeared Aug. 9, Barak said seven Cabinet members were involved in scenario-planning exercises with the chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, and intelligence heads. The discussion occurred days before the May 31 commando raid in which nine Turkish activists were killed.
“Ashkenazi stressed that it would not be simple, but that we would do it,” Barak told the commission, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel. “The politicians determined the ‘what’ and the military worked out the ‘how.’”
Ashkenazi is appearing before the panel today.
Barak, 68, spoke for three hours about debates among Cabinet ministers, army commanders and intelligence chiefs over whether to intercept ships full of pro-Palestinian activists intent on breaking Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
He focused in particular on a meeting held May 26. He said senior ministers “brainstormed” scenarios for intercepting the six ships and expressed skepticism that those on board would fulfill pledges to practice non-violent resistance.
Barak’s account conflicted with the public testimony of Netanyahu, 60, who said the political debate among Cabinet members on May 26 was largely about how to avoid looking bad in the media in dealing with the activists.
“We didn’t discuss the details of the operation, except for the media impact,” Netanyahu said in his testimony.
When commission members asked him to elaborate, the prime minister said he would respond fully only while testifying behind closed doors.
Netanyahu’s remarks drew criticism from Tzipi Livni, the Kadima Party chairwoman and parliamentary opposition leader, who said the prime minister had a responsibility to explain his decisions to the public.
“In Netanyahu’s eyes, public relations is a replacement for policy,” Livni said in an interview yesterday with Israel Radio.
Barak said during his testimony that the operation turned bloody because the Turkish activists attacked the soldiers and couldn’t be easily subdued, forcing the commandos to fight for their lives.
“No military operation ever goes as planned,” Barak said. “People can always second-guess you.” He said he would be more specific about problems encountered by the commandos in closed-door testimony.
Barak said Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip remains “essential in protecting the citizens of the State of Israel” and is “in keeping with international law.”
A separate United Nations panel reviewing the raid met yesterday with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and held a working session in New York. Netanyahu said Aug. 9 that Israel won’t cooperate with any UN effort to question soldiers who took part in the operation.
Ban said Aug. 9 he hadn’t agreed to any prohibition on the commission asking to speak with Israeli soldiers.
The five-member Israeli panel, which includes two non-voting international observers, is looking at the interplay of political and military decision-making behind the raid. The incident led Turkey, once Israel’s closest ally in the region, to suspend diplomatic and security cooperation with Israel.
Netanyahu, who was on a visit to Canada at the time of the raid, described Barak in his testimony as the “single address” responsible for the mission. The prime minister later issued a clarification to emphasize that he was still in charge of the government while traveling.
Responsibility for Decision
“As prime minister, the overall responsibility is always my own, whether I’m in the country or abroad and so it was in this case,” Netanyahu said in the statement.
Barak testified yesterday that he assumed “full responsibility” for ordering the raid while Netanyahu was traveling in Canada.
Netanyahu and Barak are from rival parties that are part of Israel’s ruling coalition.
An Israeli military inquiry concluded July 12 that faulty planning and intelligence failures contributed to the violence. The panel, headed by reserve Major-General Giora Eiland, said commandos from the elite “Shayetet 13” unit dropped from helicopters onto the aid ships before dawn, expecting little resistance from passengers.
Violence on Ship
Passengers aboard five of the ships reacted with non-violent resistance. On the sixth, the Mavi Marmara, Israeli forces were beaten, stabbed and shot after hitting the deck, according to the army. Turkish activists aboard the ship said the Israelis instigated the violence.
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade of Gaza after the Islamic Hamas movement ousted forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and seized full control of the territory in 2007. Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year, is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel.
Palestinians, backed by the UN and human-rights groups, said restrictions on food imports and construction materials created a humanitarian crisis. Israel says it restricts imports of building materials to Gaza because they can be used to build rockets, bunkers or bombs. Officials said they were also concerned about weapons being hidden in food packaging.
The Israeli government said June 20 it would loosen the blockade for shipments by road so that all food will be let in and only weapons and items with a possible military use are kept out.