Goldstone's Reconsideration

Richard Goldstone is a good man in need of a good editor. His report would never have attracted so much lightning had it not started off the way it did, trying to chronicle the terrible events of the Gaza operation, along with all the preliminary allegations of war crimes, before getting to context, testimony, caveats, and definitions (see especially pp. 10-26). By the time you got through the first section, you either had to be furious with Israel or with him.

Now Goldstone says in the lead of his Washington Post op-ed piece what everybody will remember, but which he does not really go on to prove, that to have known then what is known now would have meant a materially different report, hence, a different reaction to the Gaza operation.

In effect, he is apologizing for reporting that Israeli soldiers intentionally harmed civilians. He is saying, now, that he's looked at Israel's own investigations into the matter, and third party confirmations, and concluded that "intention" could not be ascribed and is perhaps implausible; that had the Israeli government cooperated with him, reasonable doubt about IDF actions would have emerged earlier.

Hamas missiles, he adds, were of course war crimes. Hamas has not investigated its own actions at all. As to Israel, "our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion." You get the idea that Israel was wronged.

Needless to say, Benjamin Netanyahu is on the offensive and Alan Dershowitz is clearing his throat for the I-told-you-so tour of the talk shows. Sadly, what Goldstone does not regret is a report that distracted from the wrongness of Cast Lead in the first place.

I NEVER COMMENTED on the Goldstone report--though (like my colleagues at J Street) I believed its various allegations should have been investigated--because it left me frustrated in the same way that internal criticism of the Israeli military by philosopher-framers of the IDF code of conduct left me frustrated. In the former case, we were invited to believe that IDF commanders in the ground intentionally targeted civilians as a matter of policy, in the latter, that IDF commanders on the ground did not do enough, including risk their soldiers' lives, to protect civilians. In both cases, the criticism missed the point.

I argued at the time that, irrespective of anyone's intentions, a military action like Cast Lead could not be undertaken without assuming in advance that civilian casualties would be very high. Israel's military strategists had made it plain that the operation was meant to "reestablish deterrence" ("lekasaiach et ha'deshe" or "mow the lawn," as the phrase du jour had it); that the way to handle Hamas missile attacks was through destruction of Hamas "infrastructure," which could lead to only one result.

Once young Israeli soldiers were put in harm's way--with this mission, in that context--asking them to behave differently from the way they did was unfair and hypocritical. The idea that we need a judge to determine if the targeting civilians was intentional suggests that it is important to distinguish between trying to cause, and merely being cavalier about, Palestinian suffering.

ISRAEL SHOULD NEVER have come close to undertaking an operation of this kind, where loss of innocent life was bound to be so grim, since it had not come close to exhausting every possible diplomatic avenue for achieving an overall settlement. Yes, there were missiles. Yes, this was a crime against Israeli civilians that had to be stopped. No, (most) Israelis are not cruel. But when the historian Barbara Tuchman coined the phrase "march of folly," it was to this kind of situation she referred.

By the time December 2009 came around, prior decisions, and failures of nerve, had limited everyone's options. Political leaders were inevitably drawn into a military action whose goal, other than to "make a statement," was uncertain but whose consequences were predictable. Some 400 children were eventually killed, and many more were injured or traumatized. That is just the worst of it.

Historians will not wonder why Hamas launched missiles. The organization thrives on confrontation and missiles were their sucker punch. Historians may well wonder why Olmert's government had not long before taken all steps to discredit Hamas; stopped all settlement activity, or fought publicly for principles Olmert secretly agreed to in talks with Abbas, or renounced targeted assassination and invited Hamas to renew the cease-fire, or invited it to reiterate its prior commitment to respect any deal Abbas concluded and submitted it to a referendum, or agreed to an international monitoring force, which Hamas had asked for.

If you are serious about peace, you see, there was an alternative track all along to military tit-for-tat. The point to debate after the operation should not have been whether Israeli soldiers committed war crimes but whether the continued occupation, and a continuing policy of vendetta, were only prolonging contravention of international law and getting Israel deeper into an international ditch. (The unilateral withdrawal of settlements from Gaza did not resolve this matter, since it was expressly done to consolidate Israel's hold on the West Bank.)

Ironically, inevitably, Goldstone's report, focusing as it did on the conduct of the Israeli military after the attack was launched, only obscured the larger tragedy. The hyperbole in the report ("intentional targeting of civilians," etc.) made it the target of people who were only too happy to look at three months and not at two decades. Goldstone's report made it more difficult for the peace camp to bring a sense of history to the question. So will his reconsideration.