Jerusalem — Richard Goldstone’s admission that Palestinian “civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy” by the Israel Defense Forces during its war with Hamas in the winter of 2008-2009, has generated an agonizing dilemma for the Netanyahu government: What to do with his mea culpa?
While Goldstone’s op-ed last week in The Washington Post was only a partial retraction of his allegations against Israel’s conduct during the war — it does not absolve individual Israeli soldiers of potential misconduct or completely excuse Israel’s unwillingness to cooperate with the investigators preparing the Goldstone Report — it acknowledged innate United Nations bias against Israel and praised the IDF’s methodical investigation into wartime incidents.
Just as important to many Israelis, Goldstone’s op-ed castigated Hamas for its role in Operation Cast Lead, the name given to Israel’s incursion into Gaza.
“That the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional goes without saying — its rockets were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets.”
But it is far from clear whether Goldstone’s retraction will sway a world that has made up its mind about the bloody Gaza war and an Israeli blockade that many perceive as collective punishment.
And some analysts say the Netanyahu government’s campaign to win an official UN repudiation of the controversial report, announced this week, could backfire, simply reviving a controversial war that has largely faded from view in the wake of the region’s recent upheavals.
“It will only rake up the whole Gaza situation again,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv. “The problem Israel faces is that the limited change that Goldstone made — that this was not a deliberate campaign against civilians — does not relieve the image of all the casualties that took place in that campaign. That image is particularly strong in the Middle East.”
“The public diplomacy value of Goldstone’s article is limited in the best case and zero in the worst case,” Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general to the U.S, wrote in Maariv.
Whereas the 2009 Goldstone Report “has been stamped on a world of seven billion people,” only a very small portion of people “will bother to read the op-ed,” Pinkas said.
But the Netanyahu government, responding in part to an outraged public, plans to go ahead with an international effort to convince the United Nations to officially retract the report.
“The fact that Goldstone changed his mind must lead to the shelving of the report once and for all,” Netanyahu asserted.
UN spokesman Cedric Sapey told the Associated Press that “reports are not canceled on the basis of an op-ed in a newspaper.”
For the report to be retracted, Sapey added, Goldstone would have to make an official application to the UN, something he had not done by press time.
Some Israeli analysts argue that an all-out campaign to publicize Goldstone’s about-face and press for retraction could make it more difficult for other countries to try Israeli soldiers for war crimes.
A senior IDF official told Ynet news that Goldstone’s belated reversal “minimizes the fear that judicial procedures will be opened against official officers.”
Gerald Steinberg, director of NGO Monitor, a watchdog organization that scrutinizes left-wing Israel- and Palestinian-based NGOs, likewise believes that Israelis can and should capitalize on Goldstone’s reversal by drawing attention to NGO testimonies.
“Nothing’s irreversible and the fact that Judge Goldstone has had second thoughts and discovered a lack of reliability in reports published in his name has broad implications,” Steinberg told The Jewish Week.
Steinberg said the “entire” Goldstone Report was based on “allegations from political NGOs, and these NGOs were quoting Palestinian eyewitnesses or their own ‘experts.’”
Steinberg called on everyone, but especially diplomats and journalists “who have been relying on NGOs like B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Breaking the Silence” for their analyses “to find other sources and to examine claims in a much more critical way.” All three organizations publicize what they consider unacceptable behavior by IDF soldiers toward the Palestinians.
In response, Sarit Michaeli, B’Tselem’s press officer, said that “NGO Monitor’s latest smear cannot obscure the fact that B’Tselem has always presented a nuanced, considered position” on the Goldstone Report, “criticizing its mistakes and promoting its main demand, for an independent Israeli investigation into Cast Lead.”
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, argued that Israel has no choice but to pursue official UN retraction.
“My perspective is that the report was tragically flawed, and that Goldstone was thoughtful and forthcoming in publishing his retraction,” she told The Jewish Week.
She rejected the argument that efforts by the Israeli government and its friends here to publicize Goldstone’s change of heart and win official UN retraction would simply revive interest in a conflict long forgotten by most Americans.
“With the media attention focused on Japan, Libya, the Ivory Coast, the budget debate, I can’t imaging the mass public is going to care,” she said. “This isn’t about hasbara [public relations] for a mass audience; it’s a matter of correcting the historical record so it will show the truth — that Israeli policy is to do everything possible in conflicts to avoid civilian casualties.”
In fact, she said, TIP polling “shows very few Americans ever heard of this report.”
In a widely read editorial, Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief David Horovitz, said that Goldstone, not the Israeli government, should be working overtime to correct anti-Israel sentiments caused by the Goldstone Report.
“His duplicitous investigation has had a toxic effect everywhere on the second battlefield — in diplomatic and legal forums, in the media, on university campuses, in global public discourse. He poisoned Israel’s name,” Horovitz said.
“An apology just isn’t good enough. The very least he owes Israel is to work unstintingly from now on to try to undo the damage he has caused.”
But a PR campaign based on Goldstone’s dramatic retraction is unlikely to alter perceptions about the Gaza war, said Judith Kipper, director of Middle East Programs at the Institute of World Affairs in Washington.
Kipper called the Netanyahu government’s new Goldstone campaign a “waste of time” because it is unlikely to change views on Israel’s handling of the Gaza issue — and because it may revive attention to a war largely forgotten in a particularly turbulent year in the region.
“Living in a neighborhood that’s changing radically, with its relations with most countries, including the United States, strained, Israel needs to focus on the issue that really matters: how to end the occupation,” she said. “Focusing resources on retracting this report is more an avoidance mechanism than anything else.”
Walker, the former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv, said the Israeli government faces a real dilemma; it can’t simply let Goldstone’s retraction lie without comment, but it also runs the risk of raising the issue of the controversial Gaza war at a time when the Gaza war is a distant memory to most.
“In my view, the best strategy would be to say ‘this proves that we were right all along’ — and then to drop it,” he said. “Don’t do something that reminds people of the whole Gaza campaign.”
But that is unlikely to relieve the political pressure Netanyahu faces in an Israeli electorate that was enraged by the Goldstone Report — and wants to see the jurist’s retraction exploited.