Netanyahu: Turkey sought confrontation over flotilla

The Israeli PM accuses Turkey of ignoring warnings about a possible clash ahead of a deadly raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits before testifying in front of  a state-appointed inquiry commission into the Israeli naval raid on a Gaza aid flotilla, in Jerusalem, Monday, Aug. 9, 2010. Netanyahu testified Monday before his country's inquiry commission into the bloodshed aboard a Turkish ship that tried to break the Gaza blockade in May 2010, defending Israel's actions and suggesting Turkey had been seeking a confrontation. (AP Photo/Ronen Zvulun, Pool) *** Local Caption ***  JRL106_Mideast_Israel_Gaza_Blockade_.jpg

TEL AVIV // The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Turkey yesterday of ignoring warnings about a possible clash ahead of Israel's deadly raid in May on a Turkish-flagged aid ship bound for the Gaza Strip and suggested that Turkey had been seeking a confrontation. Mr Netanyahu's comments, made as part of his testimony to a government-appointed panel examining the May 31 raid, are likely to further cool ties between Israel and Turkey, once-close allies. Relations between the two countries significantly deteriorated following Israel's attack, in which nine Turkish activists were killed aboard the ship called Mavi Marmara after Israeli commandos stormed their vessel in international waters. The Mavi Marmara was the lead ship of a six-vessel flotilla aiming to break Israel's hermetic siege of the territorial waters of Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamic group Hamas.

The Israeli prime minister was the first witness to testify in front of the panel, whose mandate is limited to examining whether Israel's blockade of Gaza and the lethal raid on the ship conformed to international law. The committee has been dismissed by many Israeli commentators as ineffective because it holds no legal powers to punish decision makers and its mandate is too narrow. But its conclusions - should it find any wrongdoing - could still prove politically damaging.

In his most straightforward public account yet of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy ahead of the raid, Mr Netanyahu said that his office had been in contact with the "highest echelons" of the Turkish government starting on May 14 and until the day of the attack itself in a bid to avert a possible clash. He added that he had personally appealed to a senior official in the Egyptian government on May 27 - four days before the raid - to intervene on behalf of Israel and convince Turkey to take action to avoid a confrontation. "However, as the date of the flotilla's arrival neared, it became clear that diplomatic efforts would not stop it", Mr Netanyahu said. During 90 minutes of testimony, the premier also suggested that Turkey may have sought a conflict with Israel. "Despite our ongoing diplomatic efforts, ultimately the Turkish government did not prevent the Marmara's attempt to break the naval blockade. Apparently, the Turkish government did not see that a possible incident between Turkish activists and Israel was against their interests, and certainly not something that justified exerting effective pressure" on the activists, he said, who were part of a Turkish charity close to Turkey's governing party. Mr Netanyahu added that Turkey failed to convey a "public message ? to cool the heated tempers of the activists on board" the ship before it set sail. According to the premier, the country's suggestions to have the Mavi Marmara re-routed to the southern Israeli port city of Ashdod and its cargo be inspected and then transferred to Gaza through an Israeli-controlled land crossing were "in vain." Mr Netanyahu also reiterated claims made previously by Israel that its commandos acted in self-defence by killing the activists after they were attacked with knives, clubs and metal rods, and that their actions were in accordance with international law. "We made tremendous efforts to prevent injuries, but the soldiers have the right to defend themselves", he said. Still, his statements contrasted with statements that had been made by activists who were aboard the ship that the Israeli troops opened fire as soon as they boarded from a helicopter. Turkey has described the attack as a violation of international law that was "tantamount to banditry and piracy" and has labeled the killings as "state-sponsored terrorism." The Israeli leader also defended the raid as necessary to prevent possible weapons from entering Gaza and falling into the hands of Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organisation. Mr Netanyahu's testimony, only part of which was public and the rest conducted behind closed doors, is expected to be followed by that of Ehud Barak, the defence minister, and Gabi Ashkenazi, the army chief of staff, on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. The state-appointed inquiry is one of at least five probes into the raid, including two other internal Israeli panels and two United Nations investigations. Israel has agreed to cooperate with a UN investigation that has been launched by Ban Ki-moon, the UN-secretary general, and whose first session is expected to take place on Tuesday. The country has rejected cooperating with another probe initiated by the UN Human Rights Council, charging that it was biased.