Netanyahu Digs Deeper Hole at Gaza Flotilla Inquiry

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Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to testify at a state-appointed inquiry into the Israeli naval raid on a Gaza aid flotilla

Was you ever stung by a dead bee? Israel awoke Tuesday, Aug. 10, to the spectacle of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hotfooting it once again across the political stage, first on one foot, then the other, then the first again. Onlookers shook their heads, half embarrassed, half amused and wholly impressed by their leader's capacity for self-injury.

The cause of the embarrassment was a previous humiliation — the flotilla fiasco of May 31, the early morning when hapless Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists in international waters off the blockaded Gaza Strip. The encounter, broadcast worldwide in night vision, was the most mortifying setback to Israel's public image in years, submerging the country in a torrent of international outrage and forcing a loosening of Israel's restrictions on what goods could enter the home of 1.5 million Palestinians. By August, the affair had run its course.

Then Netanyahu took his seat before the Turkel Committee, one of five — count 'em, five — panels of inquiry established inside and outside Israel to dissect an event that retains scant mystery but that by day's end appeared to hold a reserve capacity to injure and maim.

"Netanyahu Squirms" was the headline in Yedioth Ahronoth, the country's largest daily, atop a withering account of the Prime Minister's fumbling appearance before a commission of his own creation. "The results," wrote columnist Nahum Barnea, "were catastrophic."

"This amateurism," Ofer Shelah said in Ma'ariv, the second largest paper in the country, "this tendency to become pressured by every situation which manifests itself immediately by hiding in a corner and pointing fingers at others, and more than anything, this fundamental misreading of the situation, which produced this fiasco in the heart of the sea — these are the traits that brought Netanyahu to turn a simple appearance, following meticulous preparations, into a complete and utter failure, to the extent that he himself, sweating and under pressure, came out and attempted to remedy this — while appearing all the worse, of course."

The Prime Minister went to considerable trouble to prepare for his appearance. Netanyahu hired a private lawyer renowned for advising clients on negotiating panels of inquiry. He rehearsed with staff. On Monday morning, he opened by indignantly recounting the events from the Israeli perspective, a vantage much of the rest of the world regarded as overwhelmed by the civilian deaths but to which Israelis have held fast through it all: Gaza's coast was under embargo because Hamas, the militant group that governs there, could easily acquire powerful missiles by sea from Iran, one of its primary sponsors.

Indeed, no great political fallout has attended the flotilla disaster inside the Jewish state. Here it has always been viewed as a public-relations disaster that flowed from an intelligence oversight. The commandos who descended from helicopters onto the deck of the Mavi Marama had no idea that the Turkish activists on the deck below were spoiling for a fight with the Israeli military. Their vulnerability — the first down the ropes wielded paintball guns — was the core scandal from the Israeli perspective, not the deaths that resulted when they resorted to their sidearms. And that scandal so far has been discreetly absorbed by the military, which the whole country continues to rally around. "Israeli public opinion is not eagerly awaiting the allotment of punishment — at least it wasn't up until yesterday," wrote Barnea.

Netanyahu's problems began when he told the panel, named for a retired supreme-court judge, that he left Defense Minister Ehud Barak in charge when he departed for a planned trip to Canada and Washington. The statement, while true, could have been seen as an effort to shift the blame, so Netanyahu's office issued a statement asserting his ultimate responsibility. The effort only drew attention to the original assertion, and the morning headline in Ma'ariv announced, "Netanyahu Dumps It on Barak."

It didn't help that as deadlines approached, the Prime Minister's office was also scrambling to walk back a second bit of testimony. Netanyahu had told the panel that only the public-relations challenge of the approaching flotilla was discussed in a crucial Cabinet meeting before his departure. "We didn't discuss the details of the operation, except for the media impact." Later his staff sent text messages noting that Ministers also heard military and political briefings.

"This is the Netanyahu way. He will fall into every hole in the road, and if you don't have a hole in the road, he will dig himself one," Ben Caspit, co-author of a Netanyahu biography, tells TIME. "He's always doing the same thing — panicking. This is a guy who in 1993 ran to a television station to tell the Israeli public he was cheating on his wife!"

Israeli political analysts often write handsomely of the disappointments they find before them. On Tuesday, more than one observed that Netanyahu himself was largely to blame for the number of official inquiries that now stand to bedevil him. Of the assorted commissions, committees and probes that sprang up in the dark days immediately after the flotilla raid, several were proposed by his own government in a vain effort to deflect calls for a credible, independent probe of the episode by an international body.

"The sad truth was reflected back to us from the hall in which the Turkel Committee was convened," Caspit wrote on the front page of Ma'ariv. "The Prime Minister of Israel, henceforth the leader, stood up and told the investigative committee that he formed (so as to avert a commission of inquiry) that he, for all intents and purposes, had placed responsibility for the Turkish flotilla on the Defense Minister and then went abroad. The sentence 'In those days Israel had no king, and every man did as he saw fit,' recurs four times in the last five chapters of the Book of Judges."