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The Flotilla Probe

Whatever the rest of the world might have thought, the State Department gave a cautious thumbs-up to Israel’s June 13 announcement of an inquiry into the deadly raid on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara. Department spokesman Philip Crowley called the probe “an important step forward” toward the “transparent, impartial and credible” inquiry demanded by the United Nations. We hope he’s right. The raid has put the Jewish state in a dangerously isolated position. Only a credible inquiry can air the facts in a manner that addresses legitimate questions about the raid.

The initial signs have not been encouraging. The panel named by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be a judicial commission of inquiry, as defined under Israeli law, but something far less authoritative. It won’t have subpoena power. Its findings will be barred from use in any future legal proceedings. Its three members — average age 84 — were chosen by the prime minister rather than by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, as required in formal judicial inquiries; this will limit their independence from political interference. The naming of two international observers, though unprecedented, won’t fill the gaps.

Critically, the panel’s narrow mandate won’t permit it to answer all the questions that need answering. It won’t be allowed to interview military personnel other than the army chief of staff; that means it can’t provide credible answers to the burning question of who attacked first. It won’t look seriously into the government decision-making processes leading up to the fiasco. It will examine the legality of Israeli actions leading up to the ship’s capture, but apparently not the underlying legality (nor the effectiveness) of the blockade that the raid sought to enforce.

Israel’s military is conducting its own inquiry into the raid’s operational and intelligence failures, and the state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, plans to investigate the decision-making behind the raid. But neither of these probes will have the transparency or credibility required to quell international doubts.

Dodging the hard questions, as Netanyahu apparently hopes to do, will not make them go away. It will simply harden the suspicions of skeptics who believe Israel is becoming a scofflaw state. It will alienate wavering friends and make it harder for Israel’s closest friends to defend it. The Obama administration’s tepid endorsement of the arrangement is merely an acknowledgment that this was the best it could extract, caught as it is between a skeptical international community and a November midterm election.

Israel’s longstanding willingness to admit mistakes and correct them is one of the glories of its democracy. Its independent judicial commissions of inquiry have set international benchmarks and won praise even from critics. Past commissions produced forthright reports on the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Sabra and Shatila massacres during first Lebanon War of 1982, the police killings of Israeli Arabs at the outset of the second intifada in 2000 and, most recently, the second Lebanon War of 2006.

Netanyahu seems determined to end this practice. He refused to permit an independent inquiry after Operation Cast Lead, opening the door to the damning and unfair Goldstone Report. Now he’s intent on a toothless inquiry into the flotilla fiasco, with consequences yet unknown. He seems to think he’s upholding Israeli values. In fact, he’s trampling them.

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