Israel Struggles to Wriggle Out of the Dock

JERUSALEM – The Goldstone Commission has delivered an unremittingly scathing report on Israel’s 22-day war against Hamas in Gaza last December and January.

But the outstanding question is what kind of action the report – legal and political – will yield. Will it, in fact, result in any action at all?

The 574-page report was submitted at the UN on Tuesday. Headed by former South African Supreme Court Justice Richard Goldstone, the Commission concludes that Israel "committed actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity" during its Gaza offensive.

It further asks the UN Security Council to call on Israel to conduct "appropriate investigations". If these internal probes are deemed not to meet international standards, then Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war should be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Goldstone recommends that the Security Council act if, within six months, Israel does not carry out such an investigation.

Devoting much less space to violations by Hamas, the report found that the firing of rockets by Palestinian armed groups also amounted to war crimes. It calls for a similar legal process against Hamas.

But, the report comes down especially hard on Israel, lambasting its disproportionate use of force.

Despite the strong conclusions and recommendations of a process that could eventually land Israel in the international dock, there is skepticism about how far the proposals can actually go.

Israel is determined its condemnation does not go beyond the report.

It is pulling out all the stops, political and emotional, to back up a fierce diplomatic battle that it has unleashed to prevent it even being put on to the Security Council agenda, thus breaking a chain that might lead to the ICC prosecuting Israeli officials involved in the military campaign.

The UN Human Rights Council, which appointed Goldstone, will be convening in Geneva for a special session on the report on Sep. 29.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held emergency consultations on Tuesday night. "The goal is to avoid a slippery slope which would lead Israel to The Hague," said a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Israeli officials had anticipated condemnation, but say they were taken aback by the "harsh tone" of the report and by "the sweeping and unrestrained judgment."

"Exactly what we feared occurred," said Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev on Israel Radio Tuesday evening. "The mandate of the Goldstone Commission was one-sided from the outset. The initiative to establish the commission came from the UN Human Rights Council which is known for its routine condemnation of Israel."

Dismissing criticism at home that Israel should have cooperated with the Commission (which Israel steadfastly refused to do from the outset), deputy Israeli foreign minister Dany Ayalon, said before traveling to New York, that had Israel worked with Goldstone, "not one word of the report would have been altered." On the contrary, said Ayalon, it would only have "legitimized" the findings.

"A prize for terrorists," is how the Israeli Defense Ministry is describing the report. "The comparison between those who foment terrorism and its victims is unconscionable," said one defense official, requesting anonymity.

The Israel army is leaving rebuttals to politicians and diplomats. But army spokespersons point out that the Judge Advocate’s Office of the Israel Defense Forces provided details to the foreign ministry of investigations into 36 specific incidents wherein troops allegedly violated international law.

The battle between Israel and the international community is shaping up as a battle about de-legitimisation.

On the one hand, the compilers of the report have set out to de-legitimize the excesses of war. In Judge Goldstone’s words: "I think we should all rejoice in living in a world today where there is accountability for war crimes, there wasn’t until very recently, it’s a very new situation, and it’s very important that there should be…no impunity for international crimes that are committed."

On the other hand, Israel is desperately aiming to de-legitimize the critics of what it considers a legitimate war of defense

Although alarmed by the impact that the Commission’s findings could have on Israel’s international standing, Israeli officials are reasonably confident that its friends in the Security Council, especially the U.S., will prevent the Goldstone recommendations being transferred to The Hague.

Their practical worries do extend, however, to another front. Robbie Sabel, a former legal advisor at the Israeli Foreign Ministry and now on the staff of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told IPS, "There is a real possibility that this could give legitimacy to private legal initiatives in Western European countries, like in Britain and Scandinavia, for the issuing to Israeli officials and army officers of warrants for war crimes."

Already, the Israeli defense establishment is understood to be working out plans for extending legal aid to officers who may face indictment on war crimes charges.

Israeli Human Rights groups called for Israel to carry out its own thorough investigation, as proposed by the Commission. This was ruled out by Israel’s UN ambassador: "I don’t think we will change because of the report," said Shalev. "I know the ethics of the Israeli Defense Forces. Every complaint is being looked into, hundreds are being looked into."

Justice Goldstone suggested that past inquires carried out within Israel did not meet the standards of a full and proper investigation. "It’s tantamount to demanding that the Manhattan police force investigate serious crime in New York and confine itself to interviewing the murderers."

The Human Rights Council made a point of releasing the findings on the eve of the new General Assembly session. This, say some, adds significance to the Goldstone call for accountability, and for a timetable to achieve it.

The immediate outcome on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may, however, be just more of the familiar acerbic finger-pointing and attempts to score tactical points.

And, even the most well-intentioned moral standards sometimes put obstacles in the way of well-intentioned peace diplomacy.

With the report emerging at a critical diplomatic juncture, the most immediate result could, in fact, damage President Obama’s comprehensive Middle East peace offensive.

The U.S. is strenuously engaged in meeting the stated objective of having Israeli and Palestinian leaders meeting in a fortnight at the General Assembly to kick off the Obama peace drive.

But with his special envoy, Senator George Mitchell, continuing difficult talks in both Jerusalem and Ramallah towards that goal, the U.S. President may simply find that both sides are simply hardening their opening positions.

Israel is refusing to budge on its No to a total settlement freeze and the Palestinians, in consequence, are refusing to join the projected peace talks. What’s more, it’s harder than ever to conceive that, immediately after the publication of such condemnation of Israel, the Arab states can be expected to begin a normalization process with Israel.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.