Thursday, November 12, 2009

Throwing Stones at Goldstone

Richard Goldstone and his already infamous report eat at our kishkes. We call him names, presumably all fitting, and give his document no quarter. We believe that the report proves that Israel was right not to cooperate with the biased investigation that he led and Israel and Jews everywhere are right to denounce the biased document that has been issued.

This does not end the matter. Goldstone remains active, although apparently clueless as to why we are so agitated, and he is eager to respond to criticism and determined to see that the severe charges against Israel continue to be in the public eye. In this he is abetted and comforted by the Arab states and the nations across the globe that have made Israel-bashing an element of their foreign policy. Israel advocates mistakenly believe that condemning the report will make it go away.

We scored a victory, albeit of the famous variety, in getting the House of Representatives to declare in a solemn resolution that the report is “irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy.” The text includes thirty-two “whereas” clauses, not one of which expresses sorrow over civilian deaths, an omission that may be justified on grounds of pertinence but surely not on public relations grounds. Interestingly, thirty-six members of the House – they aren’t the thirty-six righteous – voted against and about five dozen more did not vote.

Whatever the vote or the text, Goldstone isn’t going away and he isn’t cowed. No sooner was the ink dry on the resolution than he fired off a letter correcting “factual errors.” Throwing stones at Goldstone may make us feel better by showing once more that we care intensely about Israel. It will not change any reality.

Historians will consider whether it was wise or right for Israel to go into Gaza and whether the apparent severity of the campaign was justified by the results. What is past is beyond change, as is the question of whether Israel should have cooperated or interacted with the Goldstone commission. What remains in the public arena is the issue of Israeli and Jewish response to the report. Treating it like the plague will not accomplish very much.

A response is in order and there is plenty to challenge. Moshe Halbertal, the noted Israeli philosopher who teaches at Hebrew University and from time to time at major U.S. universities, has a terrific piece in the current The New Republic in which he effectively cuts the feet out from under many of the report’s sharpest findings against Israel, showing how they are at once prejudiced and foolish in their glaring failure to consider the combat situations under which Israel operated. Halbertal concludes, “The Goldstone Report as a whole is a terrible document. It is biased and unfair. It offers no help in sorting out the real issues.”

Yet, in the final paragraph Halbertal writes, “It is important that Israel respond to the U.N. report by clarifying the principles that it operated upon in Gaza, thus exposing the limits and the prejudices of the report. A mere denunciation of the report will not suffice. Israel must establish an independent investigation into the concrete allegations that the report makes.”

This isn’t the path likely to be taken by Prime Minister Netenyahu and his government or by ardent Israel advocates on these shores and elsewhere in the Diaspora. It is comforting to condemn Goldstone, the U.N. and other Israel critics and we who care deeply about Israel regard it as a sign of weakness to offer detailed rebuttals.

Apart from the strategy not working, including among a good number of younger Jews who have already distanced themselves from Israel, the problem is that almost certainly Israel has been investigating certain of the report’s specific allegations and it did not need any prompting to do so. This is what democracies do (or should do) after hostilities, if only because it is necessary to learn from mistakes and also to determine whether there were violations of the code of military practice. War inevitably brings a multitude of horrors, including those arising from faulty intelligence, faulty armaments, friendly fire, confusion during battle, psychological breakdowns and much else. Post-conflict investigation is routine and this has been true of Israel’s wars; doubtlessly, Gaza is no exception.

For all of its bizarreness and failure to consider context, the report’s major recommendation amounts to the request that the countries or entities that are the target of accusations undertake independent investigations. There is understandably a strong temptation to defy this recommendation on the ground that to investigate now would give legitimacy to Goldstone and his colleagues. This is wrong. Halbertal writes, “It was a mistake on Israel’s part not to participate in the inquiry,” and while he adds that “After reading the report, I am more sympathetic to Israel’s reluctance,” it is clear that he believes participation would have been the better course. It would be a mistake for Israel not to launch an independent investigation.

True, an investigation probably will result in some nasty revelations regarding, I believe, limited wrongful behavior. The greater likelihood by far will be a better understanding of the conditions under which Israel’s military operated as Hamas obliterated the distinction between soldiers and civilians, constantly using the latter as human shields for its terrorist activities. There are no guarantees and there is an element of risk. Yet, this is a risk that needs to be taken.