By Nathan Guttman
September 23, 2009.
Israeli and American diplomats came to the United Nations not to praise the Goldstone Report, but to bury it. And unlike Marc Antony in his eulogy for Julius Caesar, they meant it.
As a result of their efforts, it appears all but certain that the report accusing Israel and the Palestinian faction Hamas of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity will not reach any binding international forums.
The report, released September 15, caused a huge initial international stir, not only because of its findings — the bulk of them focusing on Israel — but also because of its ultimate recommendation: that the United Nations Security Council, which has binding power under international law, require Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, to conduct their own respective independent investigations of the evidence of human rights violations cited in the report. If they do not do so within six months, the report urged the Security Council to refer their cases to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
But in the days following the release of Goldstone’s report, it became clear that in the arm-wrestling contest between international rights organizations and the established Israeli-American diplomatic bond, the latter wins easily.
The 574-page report, commissioned by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, was overseen by Judge Richard Goldstone, a widely respected South African jurist who had served on his country’s highest court and gone on to prosecute war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The report scrutinized the events of the December 2008 Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel bombarded Gaza from the air and ground in response to the continued firing of rockets by Hamas militants at Israeli towns.
Estimates of Palestinian dead from the campaign range from 1,166 to 1,417. The number of non-combatants among them remains in sharp dispute, running from 300 (Israel’s estimate) to nearly 1,000 (Hamas’). An estimated 4,000 Palestinian homes were destroyed. Thirteen Israelis were killed during the conflict.
Israel cited the council’s one-sided condemnation of it in the council’s resolution commissioning the report and refused to cooperate with the investigation. It blocked Goldstone from entering Israel to pursue his probe, though Goldstone had secured the backing of the council’s president to expand his mandate to scrutinize Hamas, as well. The Goldstone Commission was thus unable to examine Israeli homes hit by the rockets. And it could not interview Israelis injured by them, but for a few who traveled to Geneva at the Human Rights Council’s expense to testify.
Although the report raised serious accusations against Hamas, the Palestinian faction ruling Gaza, Israel and its supporters condemned it as anti-Israel, citing its lengthier and more detailed accounts of alleged Israeli human rights violations and its use of the terms “war crimes” and “possible crimes against humanity” to describe Israeli actions. Jerusalem was especially worried about the report’s recommendation to refer the issue to the International Criminal Court if Israel refused to launch an independent investigation of its own.
The report’s defenders countered that Israel’s complaint was a case of a child murdering his parents and then seeking special consideration as an orphan. The scantier scrutiny of Hamas’s misdeeds was hardly surprising, they argued, given Israel’s decision to deny the investigators access to the scene of Hamas’s crimes, or to its victims.
Israel’s drive to counter the report began moments after Goldstone’s presentation of it. Israeli leaders took to the airways and blasted the report as biased. They also made reference to an earlier document prepared by the Israeli foreign ministry, which counters some of the points made by Goldstone.
On the diplomatic front, Israeli officials in Washington, New York and Jerusalem pressed Israel’s key goal with their American counterparts: to quarantine the report within the confines of the council and ensure that it is not picked up by other international forums. Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, was on an official Washington visit and met with Susan Rice, American ambassador to the U.N., and raised the issue with her, as well.
The argument that Israel presented to American officials and to diplomats from Russia and key European countries was designed to appeal to their own self-interest. The Goldstone report, Israeli officials asserted, carries a hidden danger for all countries participating in international military campaigns against terrorism. Supporters of Israel pointed out that the United States military, for one, had killed many civilians during its military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This is a report that should worry every country fighting terror,” said Jonathan Peled, spokesman of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “We need to make sure this report does not endanger the U.S. and other countries.”
Ayalon urged American Jewish leaders to take on the report. Most major Jewish groups issued statements condemning Goldstone’s findings and calling on the international community to look at the Israeli military’s inquiry into its Gaza operation. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee called the report “deeply flawed” and said that Goldstone’s investigation was rigged.
Key supporters of Israel in Congress also lashed out at the council. New York Democrat Gary Ackerman, chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, fumed that the report’s authors lived in a “self-righteous fantasyland.”
Some Israeli officials went after Goldstone. Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz denounced him as an “anti-Semite.”
“Just as a non-Jew can be anti-Semitic, a Jew can also be anti-Semitic and discriminate against our people and despise and hate our people,” he told the New York paper The Jewish Week.
Goldstone has a long history of support for Israel that includes his current service on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s board of governors.
But despite mounting pressure from Israel and its supporters in the United States, the administration took its time in making a clear statement on the report. A State Department spokesman initially said that because of the report’s length, he had no immediate comment.
This made some pro-Israel activists edgy. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said two days after the release of the findings that he was “shocked and distressed” that the United States had yet to come out unequivocally against the report.
But by September 18, three days after their release, the State Department was ready to declare Goldstone’s findings unfair toward Israel — citing the lack of equal scrutiny stressed by others. Notably, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly did not challenge any of the report’s specific findings of human rights violations by Israel or Hamas. “While the report makes overly sweeping conclusions of fact and law with respect to Israel, its conclusions regarding Hamas’s deplorable conduct and its failure to comply with international humanitarian law during the conflict are more general and tentative,” he said.
Kelly also made clear that the United States believes the only venue for discussing Goldstone’s report is only within the council. The administration has “very serious concerns” about the attempts to take up the issue at other international bodies, he said.
Goldstone’s report was published just as the United States began its term as a member of the Human Rights Council. Administration officials said the Goldstone report demonstrated the need for the United States to sit on the council and make sure Israel is treated fairly.
While condemnation in the council is unavoidable, after their consultations with the Americans, Israeli officials were confident that the United States would easily prevent the issue from being raised at the Security Council, even without using its veto power.
Still, Jewish groups and pro-Israel activists stressed that it remained important to fight the Goldstone report in the public arena to ensure that its findings are not adopted as world public opinion.
That fear could only be reinforced by the assessment of international law expert Richard Falk, a Princeton University professor, strong critic of Israel and earlier UN appointee charged with investigating allegations of Israeli war crimes.
Falk cited the report’s likely impact on “the symbols of legitimacy, what I have called the legitimacy war” between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Increasingly,” he wrote on the website Mideast Online, “The Palestinians have been winning this second non-military war.”
Falk predicted the report would mean gains for the international movement to boycott Israel and fray Israel’s Jewish support, as well. “The weight of the report will be felt by world public opinion,” he predicted.