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Israel's 'March of Folly'

Ironically, inevitably, the Goldstone report, focusing as it did on the conduct of the Israeli military after the attack was launched, obscured the larger tragedy. The hyperbole in the report made it the target of people who were only too happy to look at three months in 2008-9 and not the two decades preceding them.

Richard Goldstone is a good man in need of a good editor. His UN report would never have attracted so much lightning had it not started off the way it did, presenting the verdict before making its case or getting to context, testimony, caveats and definitions. By the time you got to page 16, you had already encountered phrases about "indiscriminate" and "deliberate" attacks on civilians. You remembered these indictments above anything else. Once you finished the first section, you had to be furious either with Israel or with him.

Now Goldstone, in the lead of his Washington Post op-ed, says something else everybody will remember - that if he had known then what he knows now, the report would have been different, from which most will reasonably infer that new evidence suggests why opposition to the Gaza operation should be dismissed. In effect, Goldstone is apologizing for reporting that Israeli soldiers intentionally harmed civilians. Hamas missiles, he writes, were of course intentional, and qualify as war crimes; nor has Hamas investigated its own actions at all. By contrast, Israeli investigations "indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy."

He does not, and cannot on the evidence, say that the Israel Defense Forces was justified in doing what it did in Gaza. But readers will get the idea that Israel was wronged by people who thought the operation was wrong. Now Benjamin Netanyahu is on the offensive, Goldstone is coming to Israel to apologize in person, and Alan Dershowitz is doubtless clearing his throat for the I-told-you-so tour of the talk shows.

What Goldstone should apologize for, and won't, sadly, is distracting us from what was wrong with Cast Lead in the first place. His report was frustrating to read in the same way that internal criticism of Israeli soldiers by philosopher-framers of the IDF's code of conduct was difficult to hear. The former supposed that IDF commanders on the ground intentionally targeted civilians as a matter of policy; the latter speculated that IDF commanders on the ground did not do enough, including risk their soldiers' lives, to protect civilians.

But, surely, irrespective of anyone's intentions, a military action like Cast Lead could not possibly be undertaken without top commanders assuming in advance that civilian casualties would be very high. Israel's military strategists had openly stated that the operation was meant to "reestablish deterrence" ("lekaseyakh et hadeshe" or "mow the lawn," as the phrase du jour had it ); that the way to handle Hamas missile attacks was through destruction of the organization's "infrastructure," which was armed insurgents in city blocks, and could lead to only one result.

Once young Israeli soldiers were put in harm's way - with this mission, in that context - asking them to behave differently from the way they did was unfair and hypocritical. What commander could face the parents of a soldier killed because a sniper hiding in an apartment building was gone after with small-arms fire when a tank's cannon was available?

Let us assume that the vast majority of Israeli soldiers intended no civilian deaths. Nonetheless, a cavalier attitude was built into the assault, justified by claims that Hamas fighters sought shelter in civilian buildings (where else? ), that deterrence requires a certain display of ruthlessness - and as some military rabbis put it at the time, it was a sin to "show mercy" to a cruel enemy.

The point is, Israel should never have come close to undertaking an operation of this kind, where loss of innocent life was bound to be so extensive, since it had not come close to exhausting every possible diplomatic avenue for reestablishing a cease-fire, let alone achieving an overall settlement. Yes, there were missiles. Yes, this crime against Israeli civilians had to be stopped. No, Israelis are not monsters. But when the historian Barbara Tuchman coined the phrase "march of folly," it was to this kind of situation she was referring.

By the time December 2008 came around, mounting anxieties, failures of nerve, and prior strategic decisions - including a siege and targeted assassinations against Hamas - limited everyone's options. Some 350 children (according to the figures of Children for Defense International) were eventually killed, and many more were injured. An entire generation was traumatized. Can we let these facts finally sink in? And this was just the worst of it. Should a country governed by democratic norms really accept inflicting this kind of suffering in order "not to deal with terrorists"? Was it not knowable in advance that Hamas could never be "rooted out," first because their legitimacy derives from just such confrontation and, second, because rooting out means killing civilians in ways the Western world would no more allow than a wholesale Gadhafi attack on Benghazi?

Enraging? Of course. But revenge was not sane policy - and cannot be today. There was an alternative track all along to military tit for tat. The point to debate after the operation should not have been whether Israeli soldiers committed war crimes but whether the continued occupation, and a continuing policy of vendetta in Gaza, were only prolonging contravention of international law and miring Israel deeper in an international ditch. (The unilateral withdrawal of settlements from Gaza did not resolve this matter, since disengagement was expressly done to consolidate Israel's hold on what it wanted in Jerusalem and the West Bank. )

Ironically, inevitably, the Goldstone report, focusing as it did on the conduct of the Israeli military after the attack was launched, obscured the larger tragedy. The hyperbole in the report made it the target of people who were only too happy to look at three months in 2008-9 and not the two decades preceding them. It made it difficult for the war's opponents to bring a sense of history to the question. His reconsideration may make this impossible.

Bernard Avishai is adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University and the author of "The Hebrew Republic." He blogs at