by NEIL MacFARQUHAR
UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, announced Monday the formation of a panel to look into the deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish-led aid flotilla bound for Gaza in May.
But with the vague mandate described, it remained an open question whether the panel would conduct its own investigation or simply review what is produced by the opposing sides.
The panel’s mission is amorphous enough that Israel and Turkey, which have maintained fiercely opposing views on whether there should be an independent investigation, both welcomed the announcement, presenting the possibility of a face-saving way out of the diplomatic hostilities between the two.
Martin Nesirky, the spokesman for the secretary general, said the four-member panel was not a criminal inquiry examining the deaths of nine people killed during the raid on the flotilla led by a Turkish charity, including a Turkish-American, on May 31.
Rather, the initial focus of the panel will be “looking into existing national inquiries that are under way already, then, if necessary, to ask for further clarification,” he told reporters, referring to the separate investigations by Israel and Turkey.
If anything, the four-member panel announced by Mr. Ban appeared designed to help close the nasty rift that opened between Turkey and Israel over the clash, which has left Turkish leaders refusing to re-establish normal ties with Israel until it accepts an international investigation and apologizes.
“I hope this will impact positively to the relations between Israel and Turkey,” Mr. Ban said, noting it was also meant to prevent future episodes.
The panel has been the subject of lengthy negotiations between Mr. Ban and the various parties since June 1, when the Security Council called for “a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.”
Mr. Ban said the four-member panel would fulfill that goal, but statements issued by the governments of Israel and Turkey — as well as questions raised by human rights organizations and diplomats — left unclear what the panel would actually do. One diplomat dismissed its ultimate goal as a “book report.”
The panel will be led by a former New Zealand prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer, with the departing president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, as his deputy. Israel and Turkey are expected to nominate one member each within the coming days. Its report is due by next February.
Israel had been adamant that it would not accept any international investigation into the May 31 raid, and the panel seemed to fulfill its conditions. The Israeli government stressed the idea that the panel would merely review the results that the government had already produced. Indeed, while the United Nations referred to it as a “panel of inquiry,” the official Israeli government statement mentioned only a “panel” that would “receive reports on the Israeli investigation.”
“Israel has nothing to hide,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “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.”
Turkey emphasized that the importance was to get the panel in place and then see where it led. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the panel should operate according to the demands of the Security Council for a credible and transparent investigation.
“We hope the results of this investigation would make important contributions to the establishment of respect in international law, help prevention of similar violations, as much as they would assist building tranquility and peace,” the statement said.
But Turkish diplomats withheld judgment as to just how effective the panel might prove.
“We have to see how the commission would function or whether Israel would cooperate in providing the facts vital to the investigation,” a Turkish diplomat said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Analysts suggested that the vague nature of the mandate left it open to wide interpretation. “What is really the job description of the panel?” asked Joanna Weschler of the Security Council Report, an independent group that tracks the workings of the council.
Bill Van Esveld, a Jerusalem-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the problem was that the idea of “cooperation” with the panel was left undefined.
If the panel has to take at face value what Israeli soldiers have told their military’s investigators, or what Turkish aid workers have said in Turkey, then it is hard to meet the international standards of being thorough and impartial, he said.
“Nobody is going to be able to compare and contrast,” Mr. Van Esveld said. ~ courtesy: The New York Times ~