United Nations - When the Israeli government gave its blessings to a U.N. panel of inquiry probing the military attack on a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza last May, there was widespread speculation that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon may have struck a backdoor deal over its mandate.
Asked at a press conference Monday whether he agreed to a secret understanding that the panel will not interview members of the Israeli security forces accused of killing nine Turkish civilians on board that ship, the secretary- general laboriously ducked the question.
When the question was pointedly repeated, Ban said: "No, there was no such agreement behind the scenes."
But the Israeli government, quick to react to his statement, has now threatened to withdraw its support from the U.N. panel.
Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli government, was quoted as saying: "Israel will not cooperate with, and will not participate in, a panel that demands to investigate Israeli soldiers."
But he refused to confirm or deny whether there was a secret agreement or an understanding for panel members to avoid questioning Israeli security forces involved in the shooting.
Nir Hefetz, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was equally defiant when he said Israel would not cooperate with any panel that would question its soldiers.
"Before Israel gave the green light to its participation in the panel, we had discreet negotiations in order to ensure that this commission would not harm the vital interests of Israel," he added.
A London newspaper, however, quoted Israeli officials as saying that Ban had reneged on "a secret deal" in which Israel agreed to cooperate with the U.N. panel on condition no member of the security forces would be questioned.
A domestic panel appointed by Israel also skirted this issue when it held a similar inquiry last month. That panel was also not permitted to question security forces that attacked the ship.
Asked about the conflicting statements on the terms of reference of the U.N. panel, the secretary-general's spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters Tuesday that disclosing the mandate of the panel was "not normal practice".
Responding to a question, he also said the panel will not have any power to subpoena witnesses.
"It was not a criminal investigation and is not looking into criminal responsibility," he said. "It will be for the panel to decide how they work and what they ask for," he added.
On Tuesday, the four members of the panel formally met for the first time: Geoffrey Palmer, the chairperson and a former prime minister of New Zealand, Alvaro Uribe, vice chair and former president of Colombia, along with the Israeli and Turkish members, Joseph Ciechanover and Ozdem Sanberk, respectively.
The meeting took place at the U.N. secretariat, following a photo-op with the secretary-general.
The Security Council, following a meeting in late May, issued a presidential statement in which it took note of a proposal made by the secretary-general "on the need to have a full investigation into the matter and it calls for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards".
The U.N. panel was a result of that presidential statement approving the secretary-general's proposal.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Ban said: "This is an unprecedented Panel of Inquiry established under my initiative, for the purpose of ensuring accountability, which is very important."
He said it will be important, not only in finding out the facts and circumstances of the attack on the flotilla, but also for the future that no such tragic incident would happen.
Ban said the panel's main work will be to review and examine the report of the domestic investigations, and liaise with domestic authorities. "And whatever is needed beyond that, they will have to discuss among themselves, in close coordination with the national government authorities, that they can take their own future steps."
Ban said the panel will report to him - on "independent facts and circumstances and context of the incident".
Asked whether the selection of Uribe as vice chair, despite his ongoing disputes with Ecuador and Venezuela and his country's human rights record, would affect the credibility of the panel, Ban said it wouldn't.
"First of all, in having President Alvaro Uribe, I should remind you that Colombia's bilateral relationships with Venezuela or Ecuador or some other countries has not much to do with the specific case of the flotilla panel," he said.
"But I believe, having known him as leader of Colombia, in my capacity as secretary-general, for such a long time, I have full confidence that he will be a good addition and he will make a good contribution to this panel."
"That is what I made my own decision on," Ban said.
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