The United Nations report that bears Richard Goldstone’s name stung so very deeply, felt so very wrong, because its most incendiary claim struck at the heart of Israel’s character. In asserting that Israel intentionally targeted civilians during the Gaza military operation of 2008-2009, the Goldstone Report recklessly impugned the Israel Defense Forces and, by extension, the state itself. It implied an equivalency with Hamas’s behavior that seemed abhorrent and unreal to those who thought they knew Israel. And it gave succor to those who wished to view Israel as no better — or maybe worse — than the terrorists it was trying to fight.
Now Goldstone wishes to take back that part about intentionality, as in: “civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy,” he wrote in The Washington Post. That it is difficult to rescind his original verdict is an understatement. Unfortunately, just as Goldstone himself, once a respected jurist, will likely never be able to entirely reclaim his good name, Israel faces the laborious task of righting its reputation before a world not exactly eager to give the Jewish state the benefit of the doubt.
What next? First, it seems to us, it is necessary to note the subtext of Goldstone’s mea culpa. He didn’t just excuse Israel; he excoriated Hamas. The United Nations should do so, too.
While Israel complied with the Goldstone Report’s recommendations to investigate allegations of misconduct in Gaza, Goldstone noted, “Hamas has done nothing.” Indeed, Hamas’s prevarications and stonewalling have been obvious to anyone paying attention, but too few were. As Goldstone himself wrote: “the laws of armed conflict apply no less to non-state actors such as Hamas than they do to national armies.”
One way that the U.N. Human Rights Council can begin to right this terrible wrong is to condemn Hamas’s intransigence and terrorist behavior. Sure, sure, that sounds about as likely to happen as the issuance of a written letter of apology from Muammar Gadhafi, but at some point the world body has to stop patronizing nonstate actors who want to be taken seriously only on their own dangerous terms.
Even if Hamas and the U.N. do nothing, however, Israel cannot afford to declare a kind of retroactive victory and cease investigating disturbing allegations of misconduct from the Gaza incursion. Many of the probes that Goldstone praised are not complete, and there has been no equivalent, wide-ranging inquiry into Operation Cast Lead of the sort that followed previous Israeli military campaigns.
The willingness to be publicly transparent and to hold leaders accountable is part of Israel’s character, too, part of what clearly distinguishes it from Hamas and other less democratic actors in the region. Goldstone’s belated change of heart does not absolve Israel of the need for continuing that necessary work.