Goldstone as a touchstone for Obama
By Ian Williams
NEW YORK - The heavy pressure put on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas last week by the United States and Israel to defer consideration of the
Goldstone report, which was on Friday approved by the Human Rights Council,
backfired. It not only made the US and Israel look like bullies, but also
destroyed the credibility of Abbas and reinforced the image of Hamas among
Palestinians. The attempt has also eroded US President Barack Obama's recently
improved status among Arabs and Muslims, with the prospect of more damage to
International and domestic pressure was fierce enough for Abbas to ask for a
reconvened meeting of the Human Rights Council last Thursday and Friday, but
despite the outcome of the vote, this has done little to enhance his
reputation. The 47-member Human Rights Council approved by 25-6 a resolution on
endorsed the war crimes charges against Israel and Hamas as spelled out in the
Compiled by a four-member international fact-finding mission headed by Justice
Richard Goldstone, the report covered war crimes during Operation Cast Lead,
the 22-day Israeli military offensive on the Gaza Strip in December-January
during which an estimated 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died. The report
recommends that Israel and the Gaza authorities investigate alleged war crimes
and, should that not happen within six months, that the UN Security Council
should pursue prosecutions.
Israel and its allies have launched a tide of vituperation against Goldstone
since the release of the report in September, but it risks splashing back in
their faces. They have accused Goldstone, a Jewish pro-Israeli judge whose
daughter made Aliyah to settle in Israel, of anti-Semitism. This charge
stretches credulity almost as far as their accusation of bias against
Goldstone, a judge who is the West's favorite legal maven at the International
Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Some of that embarrassment was evident in the statements made by American and
other Western allies at the Security Council and at the Human Rights Council.
For example, the US and UK's statements at the October 14 Security Council
meeting, which considered the Middle East without voting on the report, were
carefully worded to suggest that the mandate was biased - but without impugning
Goldstone's integrity. Indeed, the mandate had been biased, but Goldstone only
accepted the position on the condition, accepted by the UN High Commissioner
for Human Rights, that he would expand it and investigate all sides.
The statements from the Western allies were clearly thrown in as a sop to
Israel and its supporters, but only an extraordinarily blinkered Likud
politician would draw much comfort from the persistent calls from the US, the
UK, France and others that Israel and Hamas should indeed investigate the
allegations of war crimes in a transparent and impartial way. Even UN
secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who came into office as a close friend of
Israel, joined the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in calling for an
impartial investigation - not to mention Human Rights Watch, Amnesty
International and other respected non-governmental organizations.
Much of the strongest vilification comes from commentators who have clearly not
read the report. The fact-finding mission found that there was a serious case
to answer - not guilt - so even as they damned the report with faint praise,
the US and its allies were implicitly endorsing its major conclusion - the need
for a credible and independent investigation by both Israelis and Palestinians.
The report calls for a referral to the International Criminal Court only if
after six months neither Israel nor Hamas have carried out the investigations.
As with Sudan, the ICC does not have jurisdiction against a state such as
Israel, unless the Security Council refers it. The ICC's convention actually
provides that it only has jurisdiction where the states concerned have failed
to investigate and initiate due process where warranted.
Well aware of the type of pressure that would be brought to bear, the Goldstone
report also calls for referral to the United Nations General Assembly, which
even if it does not have legal teeth, could continue to embroil Israel in
unwelcome legal attention. Hot on the tails of the report's release, in early
October, Israeli Vice Premier and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon
cancelled a trip to Britain in November for fear of arrest on war crimes - the
latest in a series of such cancellations. More can be expected.
Interestingly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset (parliament)
in September, "We will not allow [former prime minister] Ehud Olmert,
[opposition leader] Tzipi Livni and [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak, who sent our
sons to war, to arrive at the international court in the Hague." One cannot
help suspecting that this statement was a reminder to the White House that
despite the Israeli prime minister's vigorous defense of Operation Cast Lead,
that it was in fact the Labor/Kadima coalition that planned and initiated it.
There are some calmer voices in Israel, even among supporters of Cast Lead, who
think that an investigation is a reasonable price to ward off increasing
international isolation. After all, if no crimes were committed, why the noisy
reluctance to look into them? In the minds of others, however, is the damning
Israeli Kahan Commission report into the massacres at Sabra and Shatila during
the 1982 Lebanon War, even though many believe it soft-pedaled on direct
Israeli involvement and more particularly on former prime minister Ariel
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is how the report will play out in relation
to Obama's Middle East peace plans. Will he earn that Nobel Prize? His
credibility in the region is already suffering from the seeming impunity with
which Netanyahu is scorning the US insistence on the settlement freeze that
Israel was already committed to.
The US attempt to kill the Goldstone report at the Human Rights Council
certainly makes Obama's job more difficult. It will become even more so if the
report comes to the Security Council and the US ambassador vetoes a referral to
the ICC if Israel did not institute an inquiry.
Indeed, the statements by the US, the UK and France calling for just such an
inquiry could have added to the embarrassment of refusing to vote for a call
for Israel to do what they all consider to be the right thing. Of course the
Palestinians and their allies, one presumes, inadvertently, gave the US and
others some excuses, since their resolution was not a straight yea or nay on
the report. Even Goldstone himself complained that the actual resolution
adopted by the council, while endorsing his report, did not mention Hamas and
his call for it to also have an investigation. The resolution also included
condemnations of Israeli behavior in East Jerusalem, which, even if justified,
fogged the otherwise clear message of Goldstone's more balanced report on Gaza.
Despite heated discussions between Netanyahu and UK Prime Minister Gordon
Brown, Britain joined France in not voting at all, so they were not recorded as
the abstentions which had been their original declared intent. With their close
involvement in the Balkan wars and the subsequent tribunal, it would have been
difficult to repudiate the former prosecutor of Balkan war criminals, quite
apart from their expressed disquiet about Israeli actions in Gaza. The usual
suspects, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia and Ukraine went along with the
US in voting against, while the equally predictable non-aligned majority joined
by China and Russia went with it.
The report now goes to the United Nations General Assembly and recommends a
report back from Ban Ki-moon with his recommendations, which would then be
referred back to the Human Rights Council. If Israel does not carry out the
investigation mandated by the report, it will almost certainly be referred to
the Security Council for action.
An American abstention there would be an act of courage. Indeed, the long
process offers multiple opportunities for the White House to let Netanyahu's
government know that there are limits to how many slights Obama can tolerate.
If the US cannot persuade its most favored aid beneficiary not to evict
Palestinians in Jerusalem, how can it persuade Israel to investigate
allegations against its armed forces? And can it trade diplomatic cover in
Geneva and New York against Israeli cooperation in the peace process? Indeed
the US could take hints from Brown, who reportedly was trying to extract
concessions from Netanyahu on the Gaza blockade with the British and French
vote in Geneva.
Used in that way, the White House's preferred strategy of procrastination could
appear more pragmatic and less pusillanimous.
Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military
Families, Veterans and His Past, (Nation Books, New York).