The establishment of a state commission of inquiry to investigate the Goldstone report's allegations of Israeli war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza is the only appropriate response the Israeli government can make.
Anyone who thought after the operation or who still thinks today that it is possible to dismiss charges that Israel is guilty of war crimes, and perhaps even crimes against humanity, without a serious, independent investigation is deluding himself. The internal probes the Israel Defense Forces conducted could assist an objective inquiry, but they cannot replace it. The gravity of the allegations necessitates a probe by a state commission of inquiry because this is a matter "of vital public importance," as the Commissions of Inquiry Law puts it.
The Goldstone report stressed that only an independent investigation could prevent a complaint from being filed against Israel in the International Criminal Court in The Hague by a prosecutor acting at the Security Council's behest. It is possible that Israel could prevent the case from being transferred to the ICC by diplomatic means, first and foremost America's veto in the Security Council. But even if the United States backs it, the suspicions of disproportionate harm to Palestinian civilians who were not involved in terror will continue to weigh on Israel's moral image and international standing.
An external investigation is needed not only because of the fear that Israeli ministers and army officers will be arrested overseas, but also because of Israel's own domestic interest in investigating what happened and whether it was justified. The Israeli public deserves and needs to know whether IDF soldiers, their officers and their political overseers acted legally and morally during the Gaza operation. It is also important for a body outside the army to lay down rules on what is permitted and forbidden during military operations conducted in a civilian environment.
A commission of inquiry whose members are appointed by the Supreme Court president and which is chaired by a current or former Supreme Court justice will enjoy both local prestige and international recognition. The commission of inquiry into a 1982 massacre in two Beirut refugee camps - which was headed by then-Supreme Court president Yitzhak Kahan and whose members included a future Supreme Court president, Aharon Barak - helped Israel defend itself against the charge that it was directly responsible for the massacre.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak oppose an external investigation into the events of Cast Lead, viewing this as a no-confidence vote in the army and its probes. Instead of examining whether there is any justice to Goldstone's accusations, they are waging a diplomatic battle against him.
But they are wrong. Only a commission whose members are not appointed by the government will be trusted both at home and abroad. A governmental inquiry committee, or any other body whose members are appointed by the premier or defense minister, will not enjoy the necessary degree of local and international confidence, even if it is granted real investigative powers.
Only a state commission of inquiry headed by a jurist with an international reputation can address the Goldstone report with the requisite seriousness, clarify the suspicions of war crimes and lay down rules for the future. The government must authorize the establishment of such a commission, thereby demonstrating that it has nothing to hide and no one to protect.
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