Gaza war reenactment – AP – Dec. 30, 2010
Palestinians reenact Israeli strike at Hamas-organized event to mark 2nd anniversary of Gaza War on Dec. 30, 2010. Photo by AP
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Richard Goldstone’s Washington Post op-ed retracting some of the central conclusions of his earlier report is something of an earthquake: his 2009 report has marked one of the deepest rifts between Israel and the international community.

Its bottom line was simple and resounding: Israel had committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity in Operation Cast Lead by intentionally targeting civilian population.

Goldstone’s Jewishness and Zionist past gave the report special weight: It seemed that the UN had chosen a judge who could by no means be dismissed as anti-Israeli.

If you actually read the report, it is more differentiated than the bottom-line. But in a world of headlines, the damage was phenomenal. He had created the impression that Israel was acting cruelly out of choice.

Goldstone had not given an accurate picture of what it is like to face an enemy devoid of any humanitarian considerations even towards its own population, willing to make it pay a horrible price for political gain.

The Goldstone report drove Israel’s public opinion even further to the right, because Israelis, for good reasons, felt that the report was slanted and one-sided

I took a clear position during operation Cast Lead in public, and I haven’t changed my mind since. I thought, and continue to think, that Israel has the right and the duty to defend its citizens. After the years of incessant shelling of Israel’s South, drastic action was inevitable.

I was, and continue to be, utterly disgusted by Hamas’ cynicism; its use of civilian population as a hiding place for weapons and terrorists; it’s booby-trapping of buildings with civilian inhabitants. Hamas even exploited the relative weakness of the rockets that it sent into Israel: because they inflicted little actual damage, the world never realized how deeply the Qassam attacks terrorized the population in Israel’s south, and it made the extent of Israel’s retaliation look disproportionate.

Nevertheless, I thought that Israel was going too far in Operation Cast Lead, and I haven’t changed my mind. I wrote at the time that even an enemy like Hamas must by no means dictate Israel’s moral standards. The fact is that both Tsipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak wanted to end the operation a few days after it began, but then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted on continuing – repeating his terrible failure of judgment in the 2006 Lebanon war.

Israel was faced with terrible choices, and only superficial moralists can argue that Israel could have done nothing. Faced with an enemy devoid of restraint, the question was where to draw the line. I believe humanitarian considerations could and should have played a greater role in limiting the extent of death and human suffering inflicted on Gaza’s civilian population.

But there is a world of a difference in having to choose between terrible options and the Goldstone Report’s original accusation that Israel intentionally targeted civilians.

Goldstone’s retraction is therefore immensely important. While it is legitimate to criticize Israeli policies, Hamas’ systematic targeting of Israeli civilians and Israel’s attempt to neutralize Hamas’ military infrastructure simply belong to different moral universes: Israel tries to defend itself within the framework of international law – Hamas cynically exploits suffering for its own purposes.

We do not know exactly what has made Goldstone change his mind. One of the reasons certainly is that he sees that Israel indeed investigated its actions in Operation Cast Lead seriously, whereas Hamas continues to behave like a terror organization that has no interest in the truth, and only in political gain.

Hence I agree with Barak’s call to Goldstone to make his conclusions more widely known, and Netanyahu’s call to the UN to scrap the original report – even though this is unlikely to happen.

The UN might consider that the history of one-sided anti-Israeli resolutions has led to the point where Israel’s citizens and politicians have no trust in the UN, and certainly do not see it as the impartial, moral arbiter it is supposed to be. An official retraction might do something to build a minimum of trust for Israelis towards the UN.

This is particularly important at this point in history, as we are moving closer to the possibility of UN recognition of a Palestinian state. If the UN will not understand that such an act needs to be balanced with clear recognition of Israel’s right to security, this will drive Israel even more deeply into the corner of completely distrusting the international community.

This being said, I very much hope that Israel’s current government will not abuse Goldstone’s retraction to justify its disastrous policy of the last two years. Israel’s right to self-defense and security has absolutely nothing to do with construction in the settlements and the eviction of Palestinians in Jerusalem.

If Netanyahu, Lieberman and Yishai will use Goldstone’s retraction to justify further colonial actions, they will do Israel a horrible disservice. This is a moment that may bring some relief to Israelis’ sense of isolation. Linking it to indefensible policies would be wrong both morally and in terms of Realpolitik.

There is a second lesson for Israel to be learned from the Goldstone retraction: Israel’s recent policy of delegitimizing human rights organizations and to limit their freedom of movement instead of cooperating with them is disastrous. Much of the damage inflicted by the original Goldstone Report could have been prevented by fully cooperating with the fact-finding mission.

Goldstone’s retraction shows that only the light of day can prove the veracity of the claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and that it respects international law and human rights. Hiding in the dark only feeds into the hands of those who delegitimize Israel.