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The most interesting aspect of the debate surrounding the Goldstone report has attracted no attention. The cabinet and its supporters are dealing only with the question of damage control as far as image is concerned, and how to deflect international criticism. The question of what really happened in Gaza is considered to be tainted with anti-Semitism. The ever-quiet conscience of the average Israeli deflects the question effortlessly. But as time passes the legal aspect will be increasingly shunted aside, and it will be the moral dimension of the report that is etched in our consciousness and that of the world.

Everyone understands that the army's opposition to a probe of the accusations against it can have only one reason: There is something to hide. There is a simple way to convince people that any further investigation is unnecessary. That is, of course, to publicize the the army's own investigations. Publicity is one of the foundations of law. There is no reason to believe the army more than any other public body. Therefore, all that needs to be done is to present the material to the public.

But that coin has two sides. On the one hand, in principle everything is known. The directives handed down by the decision-making troika - the prime minister, the defense minister and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff - were as clear as day. The army was to carry out its mission without losses and at the same time break the spirit of the Gazan population, punish it for the past and deter both militants and civilians from any future provocation. That is the other side of the problem, and Israel's Achilles' heel: The operation in Gaza was a campaign of punishment and intimidation. That is why Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi refuse to allow an investigation of the operational echelon. It is reasonable to assume that to every question a field commander is asked, he will respond that the mission was carried out in accordance with orders approved in advance by all the appropriate authorities. These include the military advocate general and the Justice Ministry, which it may be assumed was also involved. It is no coincidence that Daniel Friedmann, who was justice minister at the time of Operation Cast Lead, attacked the Goldstone report with a vengeance.

By the same token, all that is needed to counter the harsh and legitimate criticism is to respond to specific claims of war crimes. The sweeping claim that the IDF is completely irreproachable is no more persuasive than the self-righteous outbursts of anger by Israel's leaders. Many people have been repulsed by the Israeli demand to change the rules of warfare. What is it that Israel wants? Permission to fearlessly attack defenseless population centers with planes, tanks and artillery? The likelihood that international institutions will accept this demand is practically nil.

The army will have to find the middle ground between the methods of the British in Northern Ireland, which focused on removing the terrorists from the general population, and the Israeli method of placing responsibility for terror on the entire population. It is this method that leads to horrors like the killing of children and the wiping out of entire families, not to mention the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the means for the population to earn its livelihood. Thus responsibility, both moral and political, devolves on Israel's government and the top brass, which in any case has controlled the cabinet for many years. Sanctions are inevitable, and as usual the temptation to blame everything on the field command will be great. For now, this should be avoided. The primary responsibility is always that of those who loosened the reins. However, this does not absolve those who committed criminal acts, if there were any, of responsibility.

It is not the Goldstone report that has opened another painful phase in the erosion of Israel's credibility, but rather the cavalier attitude here toward the heavy Palestinian losses. In broad circles of Western European and American intelligentsia - in the universities and among cultural and media figures - Israel arouses ever-deepening hostility.

To have friends is power, Thomas Hobbes said in the mid-17th century, but Israel's friends are dwindling. Even those who remain, except for the usual mouthpieces, find it difficult to accept as legitimate the huge gap between the capabilities of the two sides. Most cannot understand the clear conscience of "the only democracy in the Middle East," which does not hesitate to hold an entire people under occupation and siege, and at the same time punctiliously presents itself as always, in any situation, as the innocent victim of the hostile gentiles.