The head of the Military Advocate General's international law department during Operation Cast Lead said Monday that it may be necessary to establish a commission of inquiry to respond to the Goldstone report on Israel's conduct during the conflict in Gaza last winter.
"It is possible that, in hindsight, it would have been correct to cooperate with the Goldstone Commission," Col. Pnina Sharvit-Baruch said in a private closed-door meeting in Tel Aviv. "It's possible that had we cooperated with the commission, its report wouldn't have been as bad. I don't think anyone thought the report would be so severe."
Sharvit-Baruch said she believes the report's harsh condemnation of Israel's conduct and its wide distribution on the Internet have been "very, very damaging" to Israel's international standing.
Sharvit-Baruch found herself at the center of a highly publicized academic storm a year ago, after it emerged that officers in her bureau had granted permission to army units to carry out a number of operations that resulted in civilian casualties, such as striking a police officers' course linked to Hamas. Several lecturers at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law wrote letters to the department head asking that Sharvit-Baruch not be appointed a lecturer in international law there.
Sharvit-Baruch said she was concerned by the Goldstone report's negative effect on Israel's legitimacy in the global arena, and that Israel could potentially turn into "a kind of South Africa or Serbia" or a "criminal" or "racist" state in international opinion.
Sharvit-Baruch said she is less concerned with government reactions than international opinion. "The British government is influenced by public opinion, and cannot act against the views of its own population. Public opinion is important to democracies," she said.
Asked whether Israel should establish a commission of inquiry to respond to the Goldstone report's findings, Sharvit-Baruch said such a panel could provide "friendly countries" with the means to counter calls for Israeli officials to be tried in foreign countries or the International Criminal Court over alleged violations of international law.
"There is not necessarily a need for a commission of inquiry because we essentially know more or less what happened in terms of decision making, orders and targets," she said. "As for the top brass, we have the protocols of government meetings."
Nonetheless, she added, "We are now in a situation in which we need to give our friends - who don't want to see lawsuits filed against us in their own courts - the tools to do away such claims, along with other charges against us," she said.
"If they need a commission of inquiry then that's what we'll give them," she added. "I really don't think we have anything we need to hide."
On the original choice over whether to cooperate with the Goldstone Commission, Sharvit-Baruch said Israeli decision makers felt that on the one hand such cooperation could lend legitimacy to the commission. They were concerned that "if we cooperate and a very bad report comes out, that basically means that they heard us, but ruled that we are war criminals. Then it's harder to distance ourselves from its conclusions," she said. On the other hand, cooperation with the panel "might lead to a less severe report. I don't think anyone thought the report would be so severe."
"In terms of orders and targets prepared in advance, I don't think war crimes were committed," she concluded.
Sharvit-Baruch added that had the Goldstone Commission released a less damning report, it's likely that British authorities would not have issued arrest warrants against former foreign minister Tzipi Livni or Defense Minister Ehud Barak based solely on provisions within U.K. law to try suspected violators of international law.
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