The prime minister has once more leveled a barrage against the Goldstone report, denouncing it for undermining Israel's right to defend itself, encouraging terror and endangering peace. This matter, soon to be taken up at the United Nations, is becoming knottier and knottier. Was Benjamin Netanyahu's Knesset speech a signal that he and his top ministers are pulling back from the initiative to set up a panel to examine the events of Operation Cast Lead?
Three ministers have appealed to former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak to help the government disentangle itself from the thorn bush in which the report has landed it. Defense Minister Ehud Barak consulted the former chief justice about how to handle the report, and suggested that he head a panel to look into its allegations.
Two other ministers, both lawyers, met with Barak with the consent of the prime minister. They are familiar with the material and are aware that after the operation and before the publication of the report, hundreds (some say 2,000) claims by Palestinians piled up at the Justice Ministry. They know that no carpet is big enough for all the complaints to be swept under. The two discussed with Barak the possible judicial repercussions of, and the practical steps toward, setting up a panel. Their impression was that Barak would accept if the government decided to launch an inquiry and invited him to head it.
This could prove to be brilliant move. No one is better or more suitable than the country's most senior judge, a man with an international reputation, to navigate a complicated confrontation with the results of a military operation. The decision alone would go some way toward lowering the flames ignited by Goldstone. Why hasn't it happened? The cabinet discussed the subject but decided not to decide, and it is inclined not to initiate a probe, reporters have been told. We know what happened next. The Palestinians moved to have the report taken up by UN institutions, had second thoughts under U.S. and Israeli pressure, then had third thoughts, this time with the backing of the UN secretary general.
According to sources close to the defense minister, the Barak-Barak meeting was no more than an initial attempt to put out feelers, after which the minister briefed Netanyahu and the chief of staff. Leaking it to the media the day before the cabinet discussion was apparently meant to torpedo the proposal. The defense minister's basic position, it was stressed, remains as it was: The Israel Defense Forces investigates itself very effectively, the Goldstone report should a priori not be accepted, and establishing a panel would be interpreted as at least partial agreement with its conclusions.
This text has a subtext. The defense minister has obligations toward the IDF, and the IDF says it has already investigated enough. So why did Barak go to Barak, and why didn't he first finalize things with the military? Odd. And why did the cabinet discuss the matter at all? Did Netanyahu and Barak mean to enlist the former chief justice to develop rules for warfare against terrorists operating under cover of a civilian population? And if the leak did halt the initiative, whose interests did it serve?
A senior reserves officer said this week that such rules are essential for the IDF and Israeli society, and that it was not the army's job to formulate them. He was mainly addressing complaints voiced early in the operation about Israel's use of white phosphorus munitions. If we had investigated these complaints earlier, the officer said, maybe we could have spared ourselves the Goldstone report.
But a more important question is whether it's still possible to rescue the idea that the Netanyahu government, as it continues to grumble about the report, will appoint Aharon Barak to disentangle the knots. It doesn't look like it.