It’s getting a bit frightening watching the unfolding of the Israeli government’s campaign to discredit the Goldstone report on suspected Gaza war crimes. The spluttering, frantic rage, the contradictory arguments, the transparent drafting of Diaspora Jewish organizations to put their credibility on the line — it adds up to a demeaning performance that can only weaken Israel’s credibility at a moment when it needs credibility more than ever. The Israeli defense strategy seems to be painting the report as though it were a death sentence from a Nazi commandant, rather than an initial fact-finding report by a distinguished international jurist. It only makes Israel look like it’s hiding something.
Some of Israel’s presumed defenders are claiming that the report gives Hamas a free pass and ignores the years of rocket attacks on southern Israel. Others are complaining that the report treats Hamas the same as Israel, ignoring the moral difference between a democratic state and a terrorist gang. But they can’t both be true. If the report is treating Hamas’s actions the same as Israel’s, then it obviously isn’t ignoring them. In fact, Hamas’s rocket attacks are treated seriously in the report and acknowledged as the trigger that prompted Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead. The report examines their physical damage to Israeli property and lives, their psychological impact on Israeli children and their demoralizing impact on the population. They’re anything but ignored. To say they’re ignored is simply a lie.
As for treating Hamas and Israel with moral equivalency, that indicates a failure of historical memory. Israel has been complaining for years that human rights organizations like Amnesty International criticize Israeli behavior but ignore worse behavior by terrorist organizations. For years Amnesty and other groups have replied that their mandate is to examine actions by governments, not non-state actors however heinous. Now, finally, a human rights investigation with the full backing of the United Nations has subjected Palestinian terrorist actions to the same scrutiny applied to Israel, and now the problem is that they shouldn’t get the same treatment.
There’s a larger problem with the moral equivalency argument. It’s been applied to the U.N. with increasing vigor in recent years by Americans, mostly conservatives, who don’t think the organization should allow the participation of dictatorships. They would rather see a league of democracies, and put the dictatorships beyond the pale. But the very purpose of the U.N. is to bring nations together without distinction, in order to maintain channels of communication, to seek some minimal standards that might be accepted on all sides and perhaps forestall armed conflict and save lives. It’s supposed to act as a neutral forum, and a forum can’t be neutral if it starts dividing participants into good guys and bad guys. It’s a bit like asking a court of law to treat nice people better than nasty ones when judging the facts.
The premise of the world body is trying to resolve conflicts before they become deadly, or at least to end bloodshed as quickly as possible. It can’t possibly meet the expectations of those who insist on winning conflicts rather than resolving them, because its goal is the opposite. And saving lives isn’t such a terrible thing.
Israel’s reaction is especially sad because it’s unnecessary. The report’s worst result, if it’s adopted by the Security Council, would be to trigger the process of referral to the International Criminal Court. But the court’s own rules permit it to act only when the country under scrutiny has refused to undertake its own independent, credible investigation. Israel has launched a series of investigations under the aegis of the military, but that’s not an independent investigation. And regardless of the high esteem in which Israelis hold their army—mostly justified—having the command investigate itself is not a credible process by any accepted definition. Israel has conducted countless independent judicial investigations over the years, winning itself worldwide respect, even in some hostile circles, for its fairness and objectivity.
Mounting an independent investigation into the Cast Lead allegations would stop the international steamroller in its tracks because of the court’s own rules. The current strategy can only lessen Israel’s remaining credibility. It’s not likely to succeed in creating any international coalition to dismiss the report, as Israel seems to hope. Israel has failed repeatedly to build international coalitions under far better circumstances, when its case was stronger, the moral stakes less charged and its own international standing far less shaky.
The current path will probably lead not to safety, but to international legal proceedings against Israeli political and military leaders and eventually to South Africa-style sanctions.
The threat of international sanctions is mounting in any case, and it’s beginning to worry Israel’s leaders. It was a major topic on the agenda when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security cabinet the evening the report was released. And Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged it to journalists Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer in an interview in today’s Yediot weekend supplement.
The specific question was about international pressure on Israel to dismantle outposts and freeze settlement construction, as it promised to do when it signed the Road Map in 2003. Question: Do you fear, we asked, that Israel will be condemned and quarantined (tukhram) in the world as an apartheid state?
Barak: I don’t discount it. Time isn’t necessarily on our side. Everyone understands this, except for those of faith who are certain the Messiah is about to come.
Beyond the strategic questions raised by the Goldstone report, nothing demonstrates the excess of the Israeli reaction better than the smear campaign against Judge Goldstone himself. Here is a lifelong Zionist who happens one of the world’s great human rights champions. He put his reputation at risk in order to take what was promised to be a kangaroo court and give Israel a fair chance. Now he’s being portrayed far and wide as a stooge, an ignoramus and a self-hater. If it were a handful of individuals spewing this nonsense, on could say they’re making fools of themselves and it’s their problem. But it’s all part of a smear campaign mobilized by the government of the Jewish state and abetted by some of the most important institutions in the American Jewish community, and it makes all of us into fools and worse.
I’m rushing this on line as sundown approaches. I’ll be back Sunday night with some links to the report and other documents.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).