Judge Richard Goldstone’s report on the war in Gaza threatens the Obama administration’s global public diplomacy options and its scrupulously graduated approach to whatever passes for a Middle East Peace process. State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly complained that Goldstone opted for “cookie-cutter conclusions” about Israel’s actions, while keeping “the deplorable actions of Hamas to generalized remarks.” However, Kelly urged the Israeli government to investigate further.

And that is in essence what Goldstone’s commission asked for: investigation with the proviso that the Hamas-controlled authorities in Gaza do the same.

Susan Rice, Obama’s envoy to the UN, said in the immediate aftermath of the report’s publication that the United States had “very serious concerns about many of the recommendations” and pointed out a “very serious concern with the mandate that was given by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the Council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable.” In fact, Goldstone refused to accept the position until he was assured that its mandate included looking into possible crimes committed by all parties in the conflict.

It was the mandate, not Goldstone’s report, that Rice said was unacceptable, however. The report was still under study. She added, doubtless crossing her fingers for luck, “We will expect and believe that the appropriate venue for this report to be considered is the Human Rights Council (in Geneva) and that’s our strong view. And most importantly, our view is that we need to be focused on the future,” she said. However, how the administration reacts to the report could well be crucial to the future of its global credibility.

The Report’s Recommendations

Rice understandably does not want to stand up in the Security Council to defend the indefensible, not least on behalf of a government that has so doggedly pushed back against the White House on settlements in the occupied territories. Indeed just as the White House has scrupulously restrained itself to asking Israel to honor its previous commitments on settlements, many of the Goldstone Mission’s recommendations only reiterate previous Israeli commitments from Oslo onwards.

The core of the recommendations is that Israel itself conduct an impartial inquiry into the allegations made against it, or face a Security Council referral to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Admittedly, given experience of the Israeli Defense Forces’ strategic reserve supply of whitewash kept in hand for just such occasions, the mission recommends that the Council set up an international commission to monitor the Israeli inquiry. The same applies to Hamas.

The report presents both a crisis and an opportunity to Obama’s Middle East peace strategy. Hitherto Israel has relied on an automatic U.S. veto on its behalf. The reflex action has been to defend Israel, but the optimistic could detect some signs of nuance in the administration’s response.

A U.S. abstention in the Security Council, let alone a positive vote, for a referral to the ICC would send a seismic signal high up the Richter scale to Israelis about what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing to relations with their only ally in the world. His provocations on settlement activity are eroding the White House’s credibility. Although it may be difficult to get, for example, a cut in aid money past a Congress still mesmerized by the Israel lobby, the administration could indeed abstain in the Council without reference to lobby-tied Capitol Hill.

A U.S. veto might indeed protect Israel from the ICC, but a report with the credibility of a revered and honored jurist like Goldstone will certainly help mount prosecutions across the globe in other countries, particularly Europe. Indeed, his report already contains that fallback position (once again for Hamas too), invoking the universal jurisdiction of the Geneva Conventions as well as referrals to the UN General Assembly and other avenues. Many Israeli military and civilian officials already have to check with government lawyers before setting off on international trips. There will be many more, whatever happens in the Security Council.

Targeting Goldstone

Almost as bad as a veto in the Security Council for Obama’s reputation and his broader diplomacy would be any visible pressure at the Human Rights Council to thwart the recommendations. At the very least the administration could defend Goldstone against the fervent witch-hunt now being mounted by a government that refused to cooperate with the inquiry and yet assured him that this refusal should not “in anyway be taken as an aspersion on your integrity or commitment to impartiality.”

While Goldstone is indeed a revered jurist, a human rights stalwart from South Africa, a staunchly independent member of Paul Volcker’s Oil For Food Inquiry, and a longstanding prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, such a disclaimer from the Israeli government is unusual. But of course there are reasons. Goldstone is Jewish and Zionist. He is chair of Friends of the Hebrew University, president emeritus of the World ORT Jewish school system, and has a devoted Zionist Hebrew-speaking daughter who made aliyah to Israel.

Yet, critics have derided his report as “one-sided” and, even more hilariously, “anti-Semitic.” Apparently, even if he came to the conclusion that Hamas’ activities bore examination as well, he didn’t give as many pages to the evidence against them as he did to allegations against Israel.

Anyone who has ever met Goldstone, or had dealings with him, knows him to be a person of deep integrity, as the Israeli government had previously affirmed, firmly committed to human rights and very sensitive to suggestions of bias. He must have really screwed his courage to the sticking place to take this position, and on all evidence of his past career, weighed every word very carefully.

He deserves support from anyone who has called for justice in Rwanda, in the Balkans, in Cambodia or in Darfur. He deserves support from all those who pursue universal jurisdiction against Nazi war criminals.

Obama’s Call

The administration would do well to note what Goldstone said in his op-ed in The New York Times. “Pursuing justice in this case is essential because no state or armed group should be above the law. Western governments in particular face a challenge because they have pushed for accountability in places like Darfur, but now must do the same with Israel, an ally and a democratic state. Failing to pursue justice for serious violations during the fighting will have a deeply corrosive effect on international justice, and reveal an unacceptable hypocrisy.”

It is up to Obama. Does he want to build on the good work he started in Turkey and Egypt and send a signal to Netanyahu and the Israeli electorate? Or is he prepared to let the ethical dimension of his entire foreign policy be hijacked by unprincipled but powerful lobbyists?

“So why did the Israeli government boycott the commission?” Israeli dissident Uri Avnery has asked. “The real answer is quite simple: they knew full well that the commission, any commission, would have to reach the conclusions it did reach.” And any adamantine refusal by Israel to carry out the impartial investigation that Goldstone called for, and any administration support for that refusal, would carry the same implication across the world.

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