Goldstone Aftershocks

In December 2008, in response to a barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip, Israel launched a military operation in Gaza codenamed “Cast Lead.” International public opinion was shocked by the disproportion in casualties. A month of battle took the lives of 10 Israelis, soldiers and civilians, some of them by friendly fire. On the Palestinian side the death toll reached 1,300, about half of them civilians.

As a result, in April 2009 the U.N. Human Rights Council appointed an investigative committee, chaired by Richard Goldstone, a respected South African jurist and human rights advocate, and a Jew. The Israeli cabinet decided not to cooperate with the investigation.

The committee reported its findings, publicly known as the “Goldstone Report,” in September 2009. It accused both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes. The report was welcomed by the Human Rights Council — which is known as one of the most anti-Israeli of international bodies (Qaddafi’s Libya is one of its members).

To understand the Israeli actions in Gaza, one has to go back to the debate in the Israeli cabinet at the time. The prime minister then, Ehud Olmert, was about to resign under the shadow of a corruption investigation. Wanting to leave his mark on history by gaining a decisive victory over Hamas, Olmert pushed for the sort of combat that would have exposed Israeli soldiers to face-to-face battles with Hamas militants.

But the minister of defense, Ehud Barak, had a different agenda. He did not believe that Israel could really benefit from a military victory in Gaza and focused on minimizing the number of Israeli soldiers who would be sent home in body bags. Thus Barak and the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces preferred air bombing and artillery shelling over ground combat.

Hamas’ leadership and most of its armed members went into hiding in bunkers situated at the heart of civil neighborhoods, turning these neighborhoods into military targets. Since the operation took place between the U.S. presidential election and Barack Obama’s inauguration, nobody in the White House cared enough to pressure Israel to disengage.

In the aftermath, Hamas was damaged but managed to maintain its grip on Gaza. The Israeli public celebrated low casualities on their side. And the Israeli government faced hard allegations in the court of world public opinion. The Goldstone Report accused Israel of deliberately injuring civilians during the operation. That missed the point. In addition, the report made many factual errors: According to Goldstone, some of these errors could have been prevented had the Israeli government cooperated.

The damage caused to Israel by the report was severe. It portrayed Israel as the aggressor and as a serial violator of human rights. Israeli political and military leaders were threatened with arrest abroad. Gaza became a Mecca of human rights activists and radical movements across the Islamic world, challenging Israel with flotillas of demonstrators trying to break the Israeli siege.

Since the report came out, the Israeli government has made extensive efforts to investigate the operation and to broadly circulate the findings — including that a number of I.D.F. officers were indicted by the military. Hamas never bothered to investigate its conduct and has continued to launch rockets at Israeli settlements around Gaza.

There is no way to know whether the final findings of the report would have been different had Israel cooperated with Goldstone’s committee. One thing is certain: Failing to cooperate did not minimize the damage the report caused.

In an essay published in the Washington Post on April 3rd, Goldstone admits to some mistakes in his original report, but he neglects to explain the timing of his decision to retract his findings. What made him see the light? He refuses to explain. Naturally, his refusal raises the suspicion that he was under some kind of pressure — from his family, or his community, or Israeli officials. There is no evidence to date that such pressure was applied.

In Israel, Goldstone’s shift has provoked much soul-searching and finger-pointing, alongside an effort to use the “new” Goldstone to fix the damages caused by the “old” one. Right-wingers have accused NGOs on the left of the Israeli spectrum of cooperating with the committee and for validating the anti-Israeli bias of the report. Left-wingers have assailed the government for refusing to cooperate with the committee’s investigation at the time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have now established special teams to spread the new gospel of Goldstone all over the world. Alas, the world is paying little attention. The opinion about the Israeli operation in Gaza was set in stone when the report was published. The debate about the two Goldstones is of interest largely to Jews, in and outside Israel. It has become a Jewish affair.

Since the publication of his article, Richard Goldstone has been flooded with calls, emails and blog postings from Jews. Some consider him a hero, some congratulate him, some will never forgive him.

Eli Yishai, the minister of the interior, an ultra-religious politician, took the initiative to invite Goldstone to Israel as his guest. Goldstone accepted and is scheduled to visit Israel at the end of July. The highlight of his visit would be a tour of Sderot, the town bordering Gaza that has been repeatedly hit by Palestinian rockets in the last nine years (including last weekend).

For Goldstone, the visit could provide closure: He was and still is a self-proclaimed Zionist. For many Israelis, it would mean something else — not only a symbolic acquittal, but also a justification for all the actions taken by Israel in the long confrontation with the Palestinians. They are not interested in what Goldstone has to say; all they want is a photo-op with him standing by the rocket museum in Sderot.

By Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot.

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