Some observers are somewhat taken aback by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announcement yesterday that Israel is willing to participate in a United Nations probe into the May 31 Gaza flotilla raid, proposed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, saying Israel has “nothing to hide.”
This would the first time an Israeli Prime Minister has ever agreed to a UN investigation into the actions of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Israel had refused to cooperate with an investigation conducted by the UN Human Rights Council, headed by Richard Goldstone. Israel accused Goldstone, a renowned South African Jewish jurist, of focusing disproportionately on Israeli actions when the UNHRC report was released. The “Goldstone report” concluded that both Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers had committed war crimes.
Now, Netanyahu claims that it is “in Israel’s national interest to ensure that the factual truth regarding the flotilla incident would be exposed for the world to see.” When Ban originally proposed the investigative panel on the Gaza flotilla in early June, days after Israeli commandos intercepted the Gaza-bound convoy, Haaretz reported that “Senior government officials said the Foreign Ministry recommends responding favorably to establishing the committee because Turkey will probably oppose it.”
Another opinion about why Israel agreed to be part of the investigative panel: as the Israeli say in Hebrew, Ayn breira–no choice.
“There was no choice but to agree to the international community’s demands, first and foremost those of the US and the UN,” one official source said.
“We could have been considered naysayers, or we could have done what we did, which was to take part in determining the mandate that will be given to the committee and affect its program.”
The source said the committee would have been established in any case, even without Israel’s consent. “Though Israel didn’t want another inquiry, there was no choice,” he said.
The panel will be authorized to review reports submitted by investigators in both Israel and Turkey, but will not have the authority to subpoena any witnesses. One of the concessions Israel won as a condition of its participation is that neither Israeli soldiers nor any Israeli citizens can be questioned by the panel. At most, political leaders may be allowed to give statements.
Turkey, which withdrew its ambassador to Israel and suspended joint military exercises with Israel in protest of the attack, has been demanding an international investigation into the attack on the flotilla all along. Eight Turks and one Turkish-American on the convoy’s flagship were killed by Israeli naval commandos determined to keep the flotilla’s Gaza-bound aid from reaching to shore. Just before Ban announced Israel’s acceptance of the UN panel of inquiry, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated in a phone conversation with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that Turkey insists on its right to an apology and compensation for the victims.
The UN Panel of Inquiry is to be chaired by former Prime Minister of New Zealand Sir Geoffrey Palmer, an international lawyer and an expert on maritime law. Palmer anticipates that chairing the inquiry be a “very challenging and demanding task.”
The outgoing President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, will be the panel’s Vice-Chair. Representatives of Israel and Turkey will also serve on the panel, which is to begin its work on August 10 and give Ban a progress report by mid-September.
The choice of Uribe for a prominent role on the investigative panel might seem curious. Tensions have been rising between Colombia and its neighbor Venezuela. Last week, Venezuela’s Ambassador Valero met with Ban, and presented him with a letter accusing Colombia of warlike acts. On July 23, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez severed diplomatic ties with Colombia.
The pro-American Uribe is viewed favorably by Israelis because of his criticism of Chavez, whom Uribe accuses of aiding FARC rebels. Chavez has taunted Colombia for being “the Israel of Latin America” and the US as the “evil empire.” Colombia, the largest recipient of US military and foreign aid in Latin America, granted the Pentagon the use of seven military bases last year after Ecuador refused to renew a 10 year lease on the US’s regional military base in Manta.
Colombia is one of Israel’s biggest customers in Latin America for military equipment. During a visit to Israel in at the end of April to promote expanded ties, Colombia’s Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez told the Jerusalem Post:
Colombia and Israel have had a very long relationship and a very strong partnership, too. Both countries and our peoples have suffered and have endured, in a way, similar difficulties. At the same time, I would say that we both are resilient and determined, that we share somehow a lot in common. I would say that for us, it’s very important to make a partnership with Israel in several aspects.
Colombia employs former Israeli intelligence experts as mercenaries to fight against left wing guerillas. The UN Working Group holds mercenaries responsible for many of the human rights violations of which Colombia has been accused. Furthermore the use of mercenaries violates the United Nations International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which entered into force in 2001.
“President Uribe is a staunch ally of the United States, a good friend of Israel and the Jewish people, and is a firm believer in human dignity and human development in Colombia and the Americas,” said AJC President E. Robert Goodkind, who presented the award at AJC’s Annual Dinner, held at the National Building Museum in Washington.
Under President Uribe’s tenure, Colombia has fought rebel guerillas and drug traffickers and has made a serious attempt at demobilizing the paramilitary. Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
“Despite many odds, President Uribe has remained committed to the pursuit of security, peace and broad-based economic growth for all Colombians,” Goodkind said. Indeed, while President Uribe and his family have personally suffered due to the violence that has long plagued Colombia, he remains committed first and foremost to curbing violence and restoring peace and security.
Goodkind noted the shared experiences of Colombia and Israel. “Both Colombia and Israel have been forced for decades to face challenges regarding their survival and their citizens have suffered the threat of terror on a daily basis,” he said. “Nevertheless, Colombians like Israelis continue tirelessly to build democratic and prosperous societies, and remain passionate about achieving peace.”
[nb: In 2009, the AJC conferred its National Human Relations Award to media magnate Rupert Murdoch.]
It’s quite obvious why Israelis would want Uribe on the UN panel. What’s in it for the Turks?
Turkey has been seeking closer diplomatic ties with Latin America and the Caribbean since the late 1980s. An “Action Plan for Latin America and the Caribbean” was prepared and put into effect in 1998. The year 2006 was declared to be the “Year of Latin America and the Caribbean.” Trade between Turkey and Latin America has more than quadrupled in the past decade. Turkey has resident embassies in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela, but not in Colombia–as yet.
What Turkey does have going in Colombia (besides an Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Group) is its participation in the advanced and cost-effective M60A1 battle tank, for which Colombia may be the first customer. A new joint venture announced this spring between Turkey’s procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, or Savunma Sanayi Mustesarligi (SSM), and state-owned Israel Military Industries (IMI), who are teaming up to ward off at least four competitors and to sell Columbia’s military an order of tanks worth about $250 million,
The defense ministries of the two countries approved the joint venture and requisite licensing issues at the height of tensions between the Islamist government of Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist coalition government over Israel’s early 2009 war in Gaza and disputes over Gaza, Iran and Syria.
The joint venture between IMI and Turkey’s Aselsan aims for a 50-50 work share based on Israeli electronics, subsystems and weaponry, with the bulk of production and assembly work to take place in Turkey and later under licensed production in customer countries.
So while Israeli and Turkish diplomats foreign ministry officials may be snarling at each other, it’s those guys at their respective Ministries of Defense who understand how important getting along is to the business of war.
Seen in this dim if somewhat perverse light, Uribe becomes a very suitable, if surprising, investigator and arbitrator, if not a particularly neutral one. While Uribe’s bias toward Israel is unquestionable, the participation of Colombia and Turkey on the panel may quietly yield improved ties between them, whatever the panel concludes about the Gaza flotilla.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer, however, may be the most interesting panel participant and the one who most bears watching. Palmer , who served as New Zealand’s Prime Minister for about a year (1989-90) and was appointed to the International Whaling Commission in 2002, says he was asked to take the job because he is seen as “detached and evenhanded” and New Zealand as “impartial.” (Surely any investigative panel should have at least one of those, at least on principle.) Although the panel will be based in NY, Sir Geoffrey doesn’t plan on spending very much time there, although he will travel there soon to meet with Ban and define his mission.
Nonetheless, NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully, welcoming Palmer’s appointment, took the trouble to point out:
“He will be acting entirely as an independent expert, and in no way as a representative of the New Zealand government. Sir Geoffrey is taking on a challenging and demanding task, and I wish him well in his work – the long-term goal for this government, and for others, is an enduring peace for all in the Middle East.”
As the old saying goes, still waters run deep. Palmer has stated that “”This is a very sensitive matter. It’s a quasi-judicial inquiry, so it is really very important to maintain a sense of detachment.” Is it possible that that the understated and aloof Sir Geoffrey might actually be the one person on the panel who will make some waves if he opines, even on the narrowest technical grounds, that according to the Law of the Sea, Israel’s interception of the Gaza flotilla in international waters, was a violation of international law for which it owes Turkey a mea culpa, however half-hearted, and some cash, however nominal? This has been the Turkish demand along.
Uribe’s job, on the other hand, may be to bring Turkey back on board with the US, Israel and Colombia, if not as a partner for peace, then at least a partner in war. Zvi Bar’el of Haaretz identifies Turkey as one of two contenders (the other is Bulgaria) to host a high powered American x-band radar system to counter the threat of Iranian-launched missiles, described in this past Sunday’s Washington Post. Furthermore, Bar’el writes, “Turkey could also receive Patriot anti-missile systems from the U.S., while Turkish press reports suggest plans in the country to acquire long-range offensive missiles from its American ally.”
There’s much more truth than humor in the old joke that advises a young lawyer starting out: “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. And when neither the facts or the law are on your side, pound the table.”
Israel has agreed to join the panel because it’s sure that the facts are on its side: not necessarily concerning what did or didn’t happen in the assault on the Mavi Marmara, but rather the fact that Israeli technology is inextricably embedded in almost every weapons system and piece of military technology the US produces and sells to its allies. Through Israel, Turkey has the opportunity to actively participate in that military technology network.
Turks are invoking the Law of the Sea in defense of the Turkish-led Gaza flotilla at the very point in the twenty-first century when maritime law is ripe for reinterpretation. The resurgence of piracy off the African coast; the sanctions against Iran that call for inspection of ships in the Persian Gulf that might be providing Iran with dual use good and other articles forbidden by western fiat; the damage done by oil companies to bodies of water and ecosystems far from their home offices; and the massive aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and giant oil tanker platforms that have been silently redefining the notion of territorial waters may give even the most modest interpretation about the actions of Gaza flotilla–and Israel’s handling of it–long-term and long-distance significance. The Washington Post reports that the US Navy has been deploying Aegis-class destroyers and cruisers equipped with ballistic missile defense systems in the Mediterranean Sea for the past year.
The ships, featuring octagonal Spy-1 radars and arsenals of Standard Missile-3 interceptors, will form the backbone of Obama’s shield in Europe.
Unlike fixed ground-based interceptors, which were the mainstay of the Bush missile defense plan for Europe, Aegis ships are mobile and can easily move to areas considered most at risk of attack.
Another advantage is that Aegis ships can still be used for other missions, such as hunting pirates or submarines, instead of waiting for a missile attack that may never materialize.
These are the facts that will underlie and shape the findings of the UN Panel.
Don’t like them? Pound the table.