Flotilla inquiry will mean vitriol for Palmer, perhaps promotion for Clark

Sir Geoffrey Palmer's Gaza flotilla inquiry already looks beset by political storms, but could it turn out to be another step up the ladder for Helen Clark at the UN?

Already it's begun. Within hours of Israel relenting and agreeing to a UN-led inquiry into its attack in May on the Gaza aid flotilla, the political games and attacks are underway. In the coming weeks, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, our former Prime Minister, will learn the true meaning of "damned if you do, damned if you don't".

What exactly has Sir Geoffrey been asked to do? The UN's official announcement calls it:

a panel of inquiry on the 31 May incident in which Israel raided a six-ship convoy in international waters that was carrying humanitarian goods and activists and heading for Gaza.

Fox News – one of the quickest pro-Israel media groups out of the blocks, with a column by a contributor from the Hudson Institute – calls it "toxic", adding:

"The UN team will be second-guessing the actions taken in self-defense by a democratic state, governed by the rule of law and at war with a terrorist entity committed to its destruction..."

No mention of one of the most crucial points – that the violence happened in international waters. If Sir Geoffrey thought arguing for change to New Zealand's drinking culture was tough, he ain't seen nothin' yet.

At first blush, the UN seemed to have given the panel plenty of scope, saying it should look at "the facts, circumstances and context of the incident, as well as recommending ways of avoiding similar incidents in the future"; a broad mandate.

Yet within hours that breadth was being cut and trimmed. In Israel, the Ynet news service is reporting that Israel has only agreed to the inquiry because other countries made it clear it would have gone ahead with or without them. It's quoting an "official source" saying that Sir Geoffrey won't be allowed near Israeli "officers, civilians or soldiers".

So before the first day is out, a flawed outcome has been guaranteed – able to talk with only the activists, Sir Geoffrey can hardly come to a thorough and balanced conclusion.

What's more, Sir Geoffrey will also be under immense pressure from Turkey to justify its anger at Israel and, from the international community, to somehow re-build a bridge between those two countries.

Along the way he, and his sponsor UN Development Programme head Helen Clark, will pay a personal price. That Fox contributor, Anne Bayefsky, has already got Clark and Palmer pegged as Palestinian sympathisers, writing:

"UN officials clearly believe that Palmer shares, or will be influenced by, the biases of those who appointed him. In the midst of the Gaza war in January 2009, Clark blamed Israel for the conflict saying the impact of Hamas rocket attacks “has been but a tiny fraction of that of the Israeli strikes on Gaza.” In August 2006 during the Lebanon war, Clark said she found it “hard to believe” that the accidental Israeli bombing of a U.N. observation post in Lebanon was anything but deliberate".

It seems she hasn't heard about the Israeli passport row yet!

For Clark, however, the vitriol may be worth it; this all may be just another step in a journey to the top of the UN.

This piece in June in the Australian Spectator by Alan Gold draws some remarkably long bows, but believably enough quotes "sources within the UN", saying that "Clark is quietly positioning herself to become the next Secretary-General when Ban Ki-Moon retires". Clark was, Gold claims, insistent that Palmer get this job.

Why? Because it makes her look good in the eyes of Islamic countries. She'll need support from that bloc to win any vote.

Clark is certainly a credible candidate. Among the major powers, the US may be sceptical of the independent foreign policy stance her country took, but as the former leader of an English-speaking ally, you can't imagine she'd be worth stringent opposition. Her closeness to China is well known, as is the respect with which she's held within Europe. Her development work is keeping her moving around Africa and Asia... And that's most of the world sorted.

The question becomes when she might hope to have her chance. It's long been assumed Ban will have a second five-year term, starting next year. But pressure on him is growing to stand aside.

In just the past two weeks, a memo was leaked showing one of his own under-secretary generals calling his performance "deplorable" and warning Ban that he was embarrassing himself.

Commentators are saying that a second term is now unthinkable, and that Ban is simply not up to the job. Much comes down to the Obama administration and who it thinks will best serve US interests; given he's a Democrat, Clark may not seem like a bad option. Having started her UNDP job with an eye on promotion in 2016, Clark finds herself in with a chance to be GS by the end of next year.

So add yet another layer on pressure on Sir Geoffrey. If navigating his way through thousands of years of Middle Eastern politics wasn't enough, he's now got to make sure he doesn't screw up for Clark's sake as well.