Israel Prepares to Fight War Crimes Trials After Goldstone Gaza Report

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The prospect that Israeli officials could face war crimes trials abroad led the political-security cabinet on Tuesday to form a committee to deal with the international legal consequences of the Goldstone Commission's report on the Gaza war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised a lengthy battle to "delegitimize" the findings of the United Nations commission, also instructed government officials to draft proposals for changing international laws of war.

The cabinet met to discuss Israel's diplomatic and legal response to the Goldstone report and its endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Netanyahu's office said in a statement his security cabinet instructed the Justice Ministry to form a committee to deal with the prospect of "legal proceedings abroad against the state of Israel or its citizens".

"We need to keep punching a hole in this lie that is spreading with the help of the Goldstone report," Netanyahu was quoted as saying in the statement.

The Israeli leader also instructed his government to draft an initiative to change the laws of war to take into account the need to contend with "the expansion of terrorism in the world".

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, however, refused to discuss at the meeting the possibility of setting up a governmental inquiry committee to look into some of the report's findings regarding Palestinian casualties.

"There is no need for a committee of inquiry," said Barak, according to a statement from his office. "The Israeli military knows to examine itself better than anyone else, said Barak.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz had planned to raise that issue during the meeting, but was forced to set the topic aside until the next deliberation on the report.

A governmental inquiry committee, should one be established, would investigate the report's claims regarding the circumstances of some Palestinian civilian casualties.

Ministers who participated in the meeting said that little was accomplished during the meeting and that further deliberations on the matter have been scheduled for next week.

The only decision reached during Tuesday's deliberations was to establish a legal-diplomatic panel to deal with any implications of war crimes warrants that might be issued against Israeli officials.

The Foreign Ministry and the Justice Ministry had raised the proposal for such a panel, to prepare a strategy for an informational, diplomatic and legal response to the report.

Netanyahu told Likud Knesset members on Monday that "the report is going to the UN [organs in New York]. We're going to see to it that it's vetoed."

He said he expects the report to be discussed by both the General Assembly and the Security Council.

The UNHRC's endorsement of the report, along with the likelihood that it will be discussed by UN institutions in New York, "give the report an aura of international legitimacy that may lead the general prosecutor at the International [Criminal] Court in The Hague to indict senior Israeli officials," Netanyahu added.

Many countries have told Israel that launching an independent local inquiry would stall the report and prevent it from being forwarded to the International Criminal Court.

This proposition enjoys strong support from the justice and foreign ministries, which believe it would be of great help in dealing with the report internationally. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has not ruled it out, but is keen to ensure that any external civilian investigation not undermine the status of the army's investigative and legal authorities.

A government source said Netanyahu is considering the idea, but is unsure what scope the investigation should have.

An in-depth investigation of the report's claims, government sources explained, could remove the report from the international agenda, but it might also undermine the status of the IDF's own prosecutorial and investigative agencies. A superficial inquiry, however, would look like a cover-up and merely increase international pressure over the report.

Former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak has been mentioned as a leading candidate to head such an inquiry committee.

A source in the Prime Minister's Office said on Monday that setting up an inquiry committee was not actually on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting, and would only be discussed if one of the ministers, or the attorney general, should bring it up.

Sunday night, the septet of top cabinet ministers held its own discussion of the Goldstone report. Following this discussion, the prime minister instructed the Foreign Ministry to prepare a special informational campaign to combat the report.

The central message Netanyahu wants the campaign to stress is that Israel will be willing to make diplomatic, and especially territorial, concessions only if its right to self-defense is guaranteed.

The Goldstone report concluded that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during their three-week war in the Gaza Strip in January. It recommended that both sides be given six months to launch their own inquiries into the report's charges, and said that if either party failed to launch an inquiry within this time, or if the inquiry was not deemed credible, that party should be referred to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.