Sir Geoffrey Palmer, if he is appointed to lead a United Nations-sanctioned inquiry into the disastrous Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla on May 31, will have his work cut out for him. Much will depend on precisely what it is the inquiry will be set up to do.
Part of its task will of course to be to establish as well as it can precisely what happened. The facts of the matter – beyond the plain one that the raid went disastrously wrong for the Israelis – were murky at the outset and as both sides have cranked up their efforts to make propaganda from the episode have only become murkier as time has passed.
The inquiry could also look into the legality of the raid, which took place 80km out to sea, in international maritime law. That too is unlikely to be an open-and-shut question. And ultimately there is the question of Israel's enforcement of its blockade against Gaza, which eventually takes matters deep into the intractable world of Middle Eastern politics.
It is by no means certain yet that an international inquiry is going to get off the ground. Although reports from Israel at the weekend said that the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, had proposed the inquiry, with Sir Geoffrey as its head, Israel is resisting the idea. The United States, Israel's staunchest ally, also is not keen on the notion and has been urging Israel to set up its own inquiry swiftly under a High Court judge to try to head it off. Israel certainly has enough reason to want to know for itself why the raid, whatever its strict legality or otherwise, went so disastrously wrong. Even if the sortie had been legally and politically unimpeachable, the disproportionate casualties show that it was a tactical catastrophe and yet another blow to a country that sees itself as having to survive, as few if any other countries have to do, by the prowess of its armed forces.
The Israelis also fear what they see as the stitch-up that the Goldstone inquiry into the assault on Gaza a couple of years ago became. Although it was led by a respected South African former judge, Richard Goldstone, and made some efforts at even-handedness, that inquiry's findings were quickly unpicked by critics as weighted unfairly towards the Palestinians and ultimately were easily dismissed. One of Palmer's tasks, if he gets the job, will be to ensure that the inquiry is conducted with a scrupulous regard to impartiality. A properly conducted inquiry might help defuse some of the tension that the raid has generated. It might go some way to averting serious and lasting diplomatic damage that at the moment seems inevitable.
It is possible Palmer's name was suggested to the UN secretary-general by the former Prime Minister, Helen Clark, No3 at the UN as the UN's development chief. As leader of the inquiry Palmer would have the advantage of coming from a country that diplomatically has tried to tread a fine line on Palestinian-Israeli issues.
The role of the honest broker in the snakepit of Middle Eastern diplomacy should not be overstated. Some truly heavyweight figures have come to grief trying to play it. But in a relatively small way, on a reasonably confined issue, this job may provide an opportunity for New Zealand to contribute.
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