It served as Exhibit A in the political arsenal of Israel’s many foes. Its allegations of war crimes besmirched the Jewish state’s name in the court of world public opinion.
In April 2009, Richard Goldstone, a retired South African judge, was appointed to preside over a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) “Fact Finding Mission” to probe claims of war crimes committed during the Gaza fighting in 2008. The Goldstone Commission held hearings and eventually issued a report that found Israel’s incursion into Gaza to have been “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorise a civilian population” — a war crime.
Goldstone even engineered the “even-handed” headline he needed to maintain his integrity: there is evidence that both Israeli and Palestinian forces committed war crimes, the report said.
Goldstone’s finding found legs. It suited the agenda of the UNHRC and coincided with fashionable sympathies internationally. At the time of the war, critics in the West had compared Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto and repeated ad nauseum that the Jews in Israel were behaving just like the Nazis had in Germany. As far as Israel was concerned, though, the report was doomed from the start. It had a defective mandate — investigating “violations of international law by the occupying power Israel against the Palestinian people” — which rather assumed that Israel was guilty of human rights abuses even before the inquiry began.
Not only had the UNHRC’s mandate for Goldstone itself already avowed that Israel, and Israel alone, was guilty of war crimes but two of Goldstone’s three fellow panel members — British academic Christine Chinkin and Pakistani jurist Hina Jilani — had also publicly declared Israel guilty of war crimes before joining his commission. The fourth member, Colonel Desmond Travers, formerly an officer in the Irish Defence Forces, had previously described Jews as having an undue influence over British foreign policy.
This is, it cannot be forgotten, the same UNHRC that included Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia as members — and gave them clean bills of human rights health — at the time it initiated the fact-finding mission.
The UNHRC subsequently completely omitted addressing whatever scant reference there was to Hamas in the Goldstone report when it was formally adopted the report a year later. But just 18 months after portraying Israel with the bloody hues of mass murder Goldstone has now changed his mind. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Goldstone has recanted the most contentious conclusions of his own report. It was a complete back flip. Goldstone now proclaims himself convinced that a vast majority of those who died during Operation Cast Lead were Hamas fighters and not civilians, thus discrediting the much-touted canard of an Israel-sponsored massacre of innocent Palestinians.
Crucially, the op-ed noted: “That the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional goes without saying — its rockets were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets.” Conversely, Goldstone hails the drive with which Israel probed allegations of impropriety and court-martialled those who violated the laws of war. Perhaps naively, Goldstone thought was that Hamas would punish or condemn itself for its actions. But could he have really expected that? Well, he says he did. “Some have suggested,” Goldstone wrote in his new article, “that it was absurd to expect Hamas, an organisation that has a policy to destroy the state of Israel, to investigate what we said were serious war crimes. It was my hope, even if unrealistic, that Hamas would do so, especially if Israel conducted its own investigations.”
But if so, whether he recognises it or not, it signifies Goldstone’s conviction in something he himself regards as unrealistic, if not absurd. When the Goldstone report was released, it was hailed for its objectivity. Now the report’s author has admitted he probably had an impossible task: “I had hoped that our inquiry into all aspects of the Gaza conflict would begin a new era of even-handedness at the UN Human Rights Council, whose history of bias against Israel cannot be doubted.”
Certainly, the UN Human Rights Council, appears singularly fixated with taking Israel to task: nearly half of all the resolutions it has passed relate to Israel, which is also the only country under permanent review. Still, the cold realities of war remain. By most estimates, some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. Infrastructure and homes were reduced to rubble, the experience of war has been imprinted into the memories of thousands, and the prospects for finding a solution to the Middle East conflict looks even more dire today. According to one opinion poll, 56% of Israelis consider current events in the Arab world “bad for Israel” — almost double the proportion who says the country will benefit. Adding to anxiety in Israel is the perception that there is little that the government can do to influence the current events. What’s more, the Israeli government does not even seem keen to make the most of whatever opportunities might exist from the Arab masses shaking the kaleidoscope.
Goldstone’s mea culpa should be welcomed for its better-late-than-never candour, but the damage his report has caused Israel on the world stage cannot be overstated. For two years, this document has served as a byword for rogue statehood, a cudgel taken up even by outwardly objective observers of human rights and international law to further Israel’s delegitimisation.
Israel’s acts of self-defence have been emphatically dismissed as Zionist spin because of the stain that Goldstone placed on its military motives. Consider last May’s interception of the “Free Gaza” flotilla, during which video footage showed armed combatants aboard the Mavi Marmara laying siege to abseiling Israeli commandos with knives and poles. Somehow, the news story was still one of pitiless Israelis slaying innocent “humanitarian” campaigners in cold blood. Goldstone does not describe his op-ed piece as a retraction of the original report. . A fact-finding report by four people, of whom he was only one, like the judgment of a court of law, cannot be altered by the later reflections of just one member of the committee.
More significant is the sense that the Palestinian Authority is now catastrophically pursuing what might be called a “Goldstone strategy”. It is declining to negotiate with Israel on a much needed two-state conflict resolution but is instead pursuing a strategy to be granted unilateral statehood through the UN, relying on the world body’s permanent anti-Israel majority. This will climax in September at the UN General Assembly’s annual conclave in New York. Legally, the General Assembly cannot act without Security Council consent. So if the US vetoes a Security Council resolution on the issue, the General Assembly would be prevented from moving forward.
But legal norms applied to the nations of the world are rarely applied to the Palestinians. Not only can peace not be achieved without genuine negotiations but any unilateral Palestinian move, without shared agreement on difficult and contentious issues like refugees and Jerusalem, may well spark a renewal of violence.