Netanyahu Unsure How to Contain Gaza Fallout

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself embattled on several fronts as he tries – so far unsuccessfully – to ward off the enormous international pressure on Israel unleashed by the Goldstone report for its conduct of the war against Hamas in Gaza earlier this year.

Israel’s failure to bury the report has even led Netanyahu into a direct confrontation with his closest political ally, Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

In a weekend interview with the Washington Post, Netanyahu showed that he doesn’t actually have a clear idea on how to extricate Israel from the quandary.

He told the Post that he doesn’t reject upfront the possibility of the creation of an independent domestic commission of inquiry into the Goldstone allegations that Israel committed war crimes during its 22-day January offensive.

"We’re looking into that, not because of the Goldstone report, but because of our own internal needs," Netanyahu said. "The best way to defuse the issue is to speak the truth, because Israel was defending itself with just means against an unjust attack."

Both Barak and the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, vehemently oppose any commission – international or domestic – a position essentially endorsed by the Israeli cabinet last week as they parried a decision on what precisely to do.

The Israeli leader’s interview did nothing to allay the concerns of his defense establishment that he may be backsliding from his previous position that there is no necessity whatsoever for any Israeli inquiry.

Following adoption of the report 10 days ago, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva gave Israel three months to investigate its war on its own.

Unlike in the past, Israel is no longer guaranteed of a U.S. flak jacket in the form of a Security Council veto to ward off any condemnation of Israel and the possibility of sanctions down the line.

This led the former head of the International Department of the Israeli state prosecutor’s office, Irit Kahan, to write of just how imperative a domestic investigation is: "It will be easier for our friends in the Security Council to veto any proposal to transfer the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague," she argues.

But faced with the defense establishment’s uncompromising position that no officers or soldiers should be put in the line of fire of "any inquiry commission," Netanyahu did another turnabout on Sunday evening.

At a top-level meeting he again rejected an independent inquiry, announcing instead the setting-up of special panel "to counter" the Goldstone report by offering "recommendations for action on the legal, diplomatic, and political front."

The panel, headed by a close ally of Netanyahu, Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman, is also charged with looking into the army’s own internal investigations into alleged wrongdoing by troops during the war.

That’s hardly expected to relieve the international pressure.

U.S. President Barack Obama has declared that he trusts the Israeli legal system to conduct a proper investigation. With his twists and turns, Netanyahu is increasing doubts about Israel’s political system.

The prime minister may face another difficult encounter with the U.S. president when they meet again, as they are scheduled to do in Washington in a fortnight.

So far Netanyahu has even failed to advance his argument that there is a more urgent imperative than the "flawed" Goldstone recommendations – the need to alter the laws governing international warfare. Netanyahu insists that the existing laws of warfare are no longer applicable to "the contemporary reality of having to combat terrorist entities in asymmetric wars."

That he has fallen short of convincing his international interlocutors that this should be the basis for assessing the rights and wrongs of what happened in Gaza was made plain by the EU diplomacy and defense chief Javier Solana.

In an interview with the Tel Aviv daily Ha’aretz last Friday, Solana walked the thin line between those who advocate using the Goldstone report to put Israel in the dock and those who are wary of what damage this might do both to international efforts to contain terrorism and in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

"In yesterday’s world, there were wars of armies against armies, and there were laws and conventions that dealt with the conduct of such wars," Solana acknowledged. "It is necessary to invest thought in the changing situation in which it is difficult to implement the classic rules of war."

"But," Solana stressed, "until new rules are in place, we must obey the old ones."

While Israel has not directly grappled with the moral challenges posed by the Goldstone report, both politicians and commentators have been forced to address the political implications for Israel’s international standing and legitimacy.

And it is inevitably forcing them to address the other burning Israeli issue on the international agenda, the settlements on Palestinian land.

A leading commentator, Ari Shavit, writes of the five decades of Israeli settlement policy in the occupied West Bank – "the chronicles of stupidity," he calls it – the decades since Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967: "Netanyahu and Barak have no time. They must act quickly. The option of the first decade (status quo) is not an option. The option of the second decade (settlements) was never an option. The option of the third decade (peace) is an illusion. The option of the fourth decade (unilateralism) is a recipe for disaster."

"Thus it is vital," Shavit says, "to produce quickly a sober option for the fifth decade – a limited withdrawal in part of the West Bank in exchange for international recognition of an Israeli line of defense and an Israeli right to defend itself from within that line."

But, like the overwhelming majority of Israelis – even those who understand the immorality of the settlements enterprise – Shavit stops way short of grappling with the quintessential "stupidity," argues another commentator, Zvi Barel.

Under the title, "The Birth of Goldstone," Barel makes specifically the point that the moral charges laid at Israel’s door are part and parcel of criticism of the occupation itself: "Goldstone uses the term ‘continuum’ to establish that the Gaza war cannot be understood on its own without assessing it as part of a chain of events, which also includes the complete closure of the Gaza Strip for three years, the policy of razing homes, the arrests, the interrogations and torture, not only in the Gaza Strip but also in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In short, the war was not an isolated ‘incident’ – it is a link in a chain as old as the Occupation itself."

Several commentators in Israel have said that Goldstone is unfairly singling out Israel.

Barel counters that unlike in other "anti-terror wars," those who wage those wars enjoy international legitimacy because their occupation of foreign lands (as in Iraq or Afghanistan) is a tactical means rather than strategic policy – something Israel refuses to apply to its own occupation of Palestinian lands, even in talks with its greatest friend, the U.S.

"The Israeli Occupation gives off signs of being eternal," Barel concludes, "and this leads to disgust that is powerful enough to affect even our friends."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.