By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 2, 2010; 4:03 PM
JERUSALEM -- Israel agreed Monday to participate in a United Nations-led probe of an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship that left nine Turkish activists aboard dead, backing off its original insistence that its own internal investigation was sufficient.
The May 31 incident at sea prompted widespread condemnation of Israel and sparked a diplomatic row between Israel and Turkey that U.S. and U.N. diplomats have sought to defuse.
Israel was originally cool to the idea of a U.N.-led panel of inquiry into the encounter. But U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon insisted on appointing his own panel to ensure a credible inquiry was conducted.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu informed Ban that Israel would participate in the U.N. probe after being assured the panel would be fair.
"Israel has nothing to hide. The opposite is true. It is in the national interest of the state of Israel to ensure that the factual truth of the overall flotilla events comes to light throughout the world," Netanyahu said in a statement.
Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the U.N. panel would complement domestic investigations being carried out by Israel and Turkey. In a statement, she expressed hope the U.N. probe would "enable Israel and Turkey to move beyond the recent strains in their relationship.''
An Israeli official said Israel's decision to participate was driven in large part by its desire to repair ties with Turkey, an important Israeli ally in the Middle East.
"Obviously in Israel we are concerned about the deterioration in the relationship with Turkey," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "And if through working with the secretary general in the panel we can also try to stem the negative direction in bilateral relations between Jerusalem and Ankara then it's a step worth taking."
A statement issued by the Turkish Foreign Ministry said Turkey hoped the results of the inquiry would "help entrench the culture of respect for international law and prevent the recurrence of similar violations."
The Israeli navy's dramatic attempt to intercept the Turkish ship carrying aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip turned deadly after Israeli commandos faced resistance from a clutch of activists aboard.
The U.N. Security Council immediately called for a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation."
Israel has since loosened restrictions on what can enter Gaza via land crossings it controls. But it has kept its sea blockade of the coastal territory in place, saying it needs to prevent the militant Hamas leadership there from receiving long-range arms by sea.
More than 100 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip since the start of the year, according to the Israeli military.
The U.N. panel of inquiry will be led by former New Zealand former prime minister Geoffrey Palmer and outgoing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. The panel will also have a member from Turkey and from Israel and will receive reports from both countries' own inquiries.
Israel's commission, led by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, is set to hear testimony next week from Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli army chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. A separate inquiry by the military faulted planners for not having alternative procedures in place and concluded that agencies did not share intelligence efficiently before the raid.
The U.N. panel will begin its work Aug. 10 and submit a progress report by mid-September.
Special correspondent Gul Tuysuz in Turkey also contributed to this report.