Joel Greenberg
The Washington Post
August 11, 2010 - 12:00am

Israel's inquiry into a naval raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in May has raised the question of who bears responsibility for the deadly outcome, which drew international condemnation and compelled Israel to ease its embargo of the Palestinian enclave.

In the first two days of testimony before a government-appointed commission, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak made statements that appeared to shift a good part of the burden off their shoulders.

The panel, headed by retired Israeli Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, is looking into whether the raid and Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip conformed with international law. Nine activists died in the raid.

On Monday, Netanyahu testified that when he left for a trip to Washington days before the raid, he assigned Barak to coordinate Israel's actions to stop the flotilla. Barak told the commission Tuesday that the decision to intercept the boats was right but that implementing it was the army's job.

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, is scheduled to testify Wednesday.

Netanyahu and Barak testified that at a meeting of senior ministers on May 26, five days before the raid, the likelihood of a confrontation with activists aboard the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara was anticipated.

Netanyahu said the meeting focused on the public relations fallout of such an encounter, but Barak told the commission that operational issues were discussed at length. He said various scenarios were raised, including the "high probability" of a violent clash and even a situation in which soldiers who were outnumbered might open fire. The option of letting the flotilla sail to Gaza was also discussed, Barak said.

Ashkenazi, who attended the meeting, expressed concern about the media impact of a forcible interception of the flotilla, telling the ministers, "It won't be simple, but we'll get it done," according to Barak's testimony.

Barak asserted that the division of labor between the political leadership and the army is clear. "The political level determines what needs to be done and bears responsibility for it. The military echelon determines how to do it and bears responsibility for that," he said.

The ministers endorsed the decision by Netanyahu and Barak to stop the flotilla by force.

"Even after the fact," Barak said, "the decision was right. . . . It is clear that the decision-making process at the political level was not the direct reason for the reality created at the end of the military operation."

Netanyahu, for his part, was skewered by newspaper columnists Tuesday for what was widely seen as an attempt to pass the buck to Barak. In his testimony, the prime minister said that before leaving for Washington, he had asked Barak to take charge of efforts to stop the flotilla.

"I wanted a clear address on the ground to coordinate all the issues," he said. "I wanted one address, and indeed there was."

A few hours after those remarks, in response to accusations that he was shirking responsibility, Netanyahu said in a televised statement: "I would like to make clear that as prime minister, I always bear overall responsibility, whether I'm in Israel or abroad."

Barak prefaced his remarks to the commission with a similar assertion that as defense minister, he bears "overall responsibility" for the army and its directives.

But the statements did little to dispel the impression that Israel's political leaders were reluctant to own up to their role in the raid.

Giora Eiland, a retired general who headed a military investigation of the events, told Israel Radio that although the army chief of staff readily admitted to errors he had made, "the style is different at the political level. They talk about responsibility in a very general way, but you don't hear anyone saying, 'I might have made a mistake.' "


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