JERUSALEM — The controversy surrounding the Goldstone report – which found that both Israel and its Hamas opponents committed war crimes in last winter’s Gaza war – is growing hotter, as allies and critics of the Jewish state are ratcheting up the debate over how Israel should respond to increasing pressure to conduct its own investigation into the war.
The Israeli government’s initial reaction to the United Nations’ four-member investigation, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, was to go on a full-blown diplomatic campaign aimed at discrediting the report and its authors as inherently biased.
But five weeks later, cracks are appearing in Israel’s resolve not to be pushed into launching its own commission of inquiry. And Mr. Goldstone, a Jewish South African, has in recent days gone on his own personal campaign, giving numerous interviews and publishing opinion pieces aimed at explaining his decision to head the commission as a moral one that is part and parcel of his Jewish identity.
On Tuesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet decided not to discuss an internal probe on the Gaza war and asked the US to block any further action on the report. But the furor has many legal experts in Israel calling for action.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has led the charge against an internal evaluation of whether war crimes were committed in Gaza and blocked a planned cabinet discussion on whether to launch such a probe. The Israeli army says it is conducting its own international investigation into the war, in which over 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died.
But others in Netanyahu’s cabinet have begun to voice their skepticism over Mr. Barak’s approach. Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor says Israel should establish its own independent committee to investigate the war in Gaza, according to an interview published Wednesday in Haaretz, Israel’s left-leaning newspaper of record.
“Today, with the development of international law, one of the best means of defense is for a state to investigate itself,” said Mr. Meridor, one of Netanyahu’s long-time contemporaries from the right-wing Likud Party.
Alan Baker, a former legal advisor to Israel’s foreign ministry, says Israel should stop trying to ignore the tide of criticism and legal action and launch its own top-level investigation.
“Setting up a commission of inquiry goes to the heart of the tactical issues, the moral issues, and the political issues. It doesn’t necessarily say that the state has no faith in the army, although that’s the argument that’s being used,” Baker says, referring to concerns expressed by Barak, a former army chief-of-staff, and others in the military establishment.
Baker says that if Israel launches its own investigation, the ICC (International Criminal Court) will no longer claim jurisdiction.
“If Israel forms an impartial, high-level inquiry which is run by internationally respected judges and legal experts and not by the military, all of this could be neutralized,” Baker says. “In my opinion, it will justify the moral aspects of how the Israeli army was functioning and will likely show that the [Israeli Defense Forces] did not willfully and deliberately, as Goldstone argued, set out to harm Palestinians.”
Goldstone defends himself
Goldstone, in an op-ed in Monday’s Jerusalem Post, said that his values led him to investigate human rights violations in countries such as Sri Lanka, China, Russia, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan.
“I would have been acting against those principles and my own convictions and conscience if I had refused a request from the United Nations to investigate serious allegations of war crimes against both Israel and Hamas in the context of Operation Cast Lead,” Goldstone wrote, using the Israeli military’s name for the Gaza offensive.
“As a Jew, I felt a greater and not a lesser obligation to do so. It is well documented that as a condition of my participation I insisted upon and received an evenhanded mandate to investigate all sides and that is what we sought to do,” he said. “I sincerely believed that because of my own record and the terms of the mission’s mandate we would receive the cooperation of the Israeli government. Its refusal to cooperate was a grave error.”