by Dave Bender
JERUSALEM, Aug. 10 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in testimony before the Turkel Commission on Tuesday that he took responsibility for the May 31 Israeli army raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that left nine activists dead.
"I carry overall responsibility for everything that took place in the systems under my command. I carry responsibility for the orders given on the political level," Barak said to the five members of the committee and two foreign observers.
Barak's remarks were in accord with those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said in his testimony a day earlier that due to a trip to Washington to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, he had left the defense echelon headed by Barak to deal with the operational aspects of the raid on the flotilla.
Netanyahu's comments made headlines in Israel, some analysts said it revealed a prime minister unconnected to a political- military decision-making process at a critical juncture. Netanyahu later in the day backtracked from his statement, and said that he took overall responsibility for the events surrounding the flotilla raid.
However, Barak's comments returned some political fire at Netanyahu. "The decision to stop the flotilla was made after a thorough examination of the options available by the prime minister and the 'forum of seven,'" Barak told the panel.
"The choice was not between good and bad, but between two bad options," Barak said in his testimony, alluding to the range of responses that Netanyahu, Barak and both the political and military echelons faced in trying to head off the flotilla.
"Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi stressed that it would not be simple but that we would do it," Barak said of the discussion on possible tactics by the internal cabinet ministers' forum.
"The politicians determined the 'what' and the IDF worked out the 'how,' and the IDF carried out the operation," Barak said.
In an opening comment, panel chief retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel chided Barak about not having enough time to read documents the panel received from the Defense Ministry only the night before.
Barak, often reading from prepared notes, spoke forcefully and quickly, emphasizing his points with animated hand gestures. At one point, panel member Reuven Merhav asked Barak to slow down his delivery, and not inundate the judges with more details than they could reasonably assimilate from his live testimony.
For several times, Barak asked the judges to allow him to provide details of the plans for dealing with the flotilla, as well as negotiations with Turkey to try to halt the ships from leaving port, and other either diplomatically or security- sensitive issues in a closed-door session held later in the day.
Barak, in closing remarks in response to a question posed of whether the IDF was able to conduct an adequate internal investigation according to international norms, answered in the positive.
However, he added, speaking at length and sometimes passionately, that it would be unreasonable to demand that soldiers engaged in a split-second military operation be forced to constantly consider the legal ramifications of every step of their actions while in the line of fire.
His words may provide a hint of Wednesday's final day of testimony by IDF chief Ashkenazi, and of a new diplomatic storm: Israel said on Monday that it would not cooperate with a UN investigation of the flotilla events, set to begin on Tuesday.
"We said very clearly, Israel will not cooperate with or participate in any panel that demands to investigate IDF personnel, " Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli prime minister's office, told Xinhua on Tuesday.
The decision comes over a statement by UN chief Ban Ki-moon a day earlier denying there was any behind-the-scenes agreement shielding Israeli soldiers or officers involved in the operation from questioning.
"This is a basic issue of independence and sovereignty," Regev said.
Retired Israeli diplomat Yosef Ciechanover was to join the UN panel, but his role is now unclear as a result of the latest disagreement.
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