Richard Goldstone’s original U.N. report on the Gaza war of 2008-09 landed like a bombshell in the PR war over Israel, damaging Israel’s reputation around the world with its finding that Israel potentially committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during its three-week war against Hamas.
Now that Goldstone has issued a retraction of sorts — in the form of an Op-Ed in The Washington Post exculpating Israel from the report’s harshest allegations, including the claim that Israel intentionally targeted Palestinian civilians in Gaza — the question is whether the destruction wreaked by that bombshell can be undone.
“We know a lot more today about what happened in the Gaza war of 2008-09 than we did when I chaired the fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council that produced what has come to be known as the Goldstone Report,” Goldstone wrote in the Op-Ed published April 1. “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.”
What can be done a year and a half after the fact about a report that Israeli President Shimon Peres described at the time of its publication as a blood libel against the Jewish people? It’s just one of a host of questions raised by Goldstone’s piece, titled “Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and war crimes.”
For one thing, if Goldstone really wanted to retract or amend his original report, why didn’t he do so in the same forum in which he submitted the report, the United Nations?
“U.N. reports are not canceled on the basis of an Op-Ed in a newspaper,” a spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Cedric Sapey, told The Associated Press on Monday.
Sapey said Goldstone would have to submit a formal request to the council to void the report; he has not.
The reason probably lies in a Talmudic reading of Goldstone’s Op-Ed. Goldstone doesn’t admit culpability. Rather, he regrets that his “fact-finding mission did not have evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes.”
For that, Goldstone blames “Israel’s lack of cooperation.”
Leaving aside for the moment whether Goldstone did a subpar job in his original investigation by failing to get Israel’s side of the story, or that the report’s conclusion that Israel may have committed war crimes impugned Israel by disguising conjecture as culpability, Goldstone’s reconsideration raises the question of whether Israel would have been better off cooperating with the investigation rather than boycotting it.
In his Op-Ed, Goldstone ascribes his change of position to subsequent Israeli investigations that have presented new, credible evidence that was not available to him when he conducted his original probe.
“The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion,” Goldstone wrote. “While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”
Had Israel shared that information while he was conducting his investigation, Goldstone suggests, the report would have been much different.
At the time, Israeli officials decided to boycott and discredit Goldstone’s investigation. Israel argued that the probe’s mandate from the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body hopelessly biased against Israel, made it impossible to get a fair shake. Indeed, the council’s original mandate for the investigation prejudged Israel as guilty, calling for a probe into Israel’s “massive violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people” but not including a similar call to investigate Hamas.
But that was before the council turned the investigation over to Goldstone, who had bona fide credentials as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people. Goldstone, who is Jewish, was a member of the board of governors of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University (he was subsequently ejected), a former president of the Jewish educational organization World ORT and a board member of a Brandeis University ethics institute.
Goldstone agreed to undertake the investigation only if the mandate was changed to include a probe of Palestinian actions in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The council obliged.
But Israel’s stance remained unchanged, and it opted to ignore Goldstone, at a heavy price.
This week, Israeli officials welcomed what they described as Goldstone’s retraction, saying it vindicated not only Israel’s actions in the Gaza war but the humanitarian nature of the Israel Defense Forces’ approach to combat.
They did not address the question of whether or not it had been a mistake to boycott Goldstone’s probe in the first place, and whether cooperating would have changed the crux of a report that caused irreparable harm to Israel’s reputation.
“There are very few instances in which those who disseminate libels retract their libel; this happened in the case of the Goldstone Report,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting.
“Goldstone himself said that all of the things that we have been saying all along are correct: that Israel never intentionally fired at civilians and that our inquiries operated according to the highest international standards,” the Israeli leader said. “This leads us to call for the immediate cancellation of the Goldstone Report.”
For his part, Goldstone declined to talk to reporters this week about his reconsideration, why he published it as an Op-Ed rather than straightening the record in the United Nations, and why he decided to write it now.
Uriel Heilman is JTA’s managing editor.