In wake of UN Gaza probe, how can Israel go to war again?
The UN report on Cast Lead saps international legitimacy for a similar IDF operation in the future.
The United Nations fact-finding mission into the Gaza offensive describes Israel as perpetrating war crimes - a police state which persecutes minorities - and tars the Palestinian leadership in the Gaza Strip and West Bank with similar accusations.
If its findings and recommendations are accepted, the International Criminal Court in The Hague could call a summit meeting between the leaders of Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority on the defendants' stand.
But the ultimate adjudicator on the report's fate will be Barack Obama, who now has another whip with which to flay Benjamin Netanyahu - if you don't freeze the settlements and agree to concessions, legal proceedings will commence against those responsible for Operation Cast Lead.
It's doubtful that Obama wishes to make such a threat, which would set a precedent against other militaries fighting terror in civilian areas, as is the U.S. army in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report brings up a number of findings. First, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon erred in 2005 in not seeing the Gaza disengagement to its conclusion by asking the international community for recognition that the occupation of Gaza had ended. A significant portion of the crimes for which Israel is now blamed stemmed from its humanitarian responsibility for the residents of the Strip.
Second, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak (prime and defense ministers respectively during Cast Lead) erred in ignoring the Gazan population's suffering, and in allowing the death and destruction the IDF perpetrated during the Gaza campaign.
Lengthening the operation and choosing to send in ground forces - decisions which won widespread support among the Israeli public - wrought untold damage to Israel's international image, and bolstered the legitimacy of Hamas.
Third, Western governments may ignore this damning report, but it will now serve as the basis of criticism against Israel in public opinion, the media, on campuses and in think tanks, places where UN documents are still taken seriously.
Fourth, Israel decided to question the investigators' legitimacy and not cooperate with commission chair Richard Goldstone and his team. None of the defenses heard in Israeli media after the Gaza operation - that the IDF is "the most moral army in the world," that striking civilian-populated areas was necessary and proportional - were reported to the commission. To a university student in Britain or Spain, Israel's silence is perceived as an admission of guilt.
The appearance of Israeli "private citizens" before the panel proved its usefulness: Noam Shalit testified, and then Goldstone called for the release and return of his son.
Maybe it would have been better if the government had behaved as Shalit did, flooding Goldstone with information?
Last, and perhaps most important, the Goldstone report reinforces the most serious strategic threat Israel brought upon itself with the Gaza offensive, in that it saps international legitimacy for a similar operation in the future.
A country considering attacking the nuclear reactor in Iran, and then endangering itself to rocket fire from Lebanon and Gaza in response, will have to take into account whether the world will give Israel another opportunity for a severe, crushing response.