Monday, October 19, 2009

Goldstone, Touchstone for Obama ME Peace Plan

Goldstone as a touchstone for Obama
By Ian Williams

Asia Times 20 October 2009

NEW YORK - The heavy pressure put on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week by the United States and Israel to defer consideration of the Goldstone report, which was on Friday approved by the Human Rights Council, backfired. It not only made the US and Israel look like bullies, but also destroyed the credibility of Abbas and reinforced the image of Hamas among Palestinians. The attempt has also eroded US President Barack Obama's recently improved status among Arabs and Muslims, with the prospect of more damage to come.

International and domestic pressure was fierce enough for Abbas to ask for a reconvened meeting of the Human Rights Council last Thursday and Friday, but despite the outcome of the vote, this has done little to enhance his reputation. The 47-member Human Rights Council approved by 25-6 a resolution on Friday that endorsed the war crimes charges against Israel and Hamas as spelled out in the report.

Compiled by a four-member international fact-finding mission headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, the report covered war crimes during Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day Israeli military offensive on the Gaza Strip in December-January during which an estimated 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died. The report recommends that Israel and the Gaza authorities investigate alleged war crimes and, should that not happen within six months, that the UN Security Council should pursue prosecutions.

Israel and its allies have launched a tide of vituperation against Goldstone since the release of the report in September, but it risks splashing back in their faces. They have accused Goldstone, a Jewish pro-Israeli judge whose daughter made Aliyah to settle in Israel, of anti-Semitism. This charge stretches credulity almost as far as their accusation of bias against Goldstone, a judge who is the West's favorite legal maven at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Some of that embarrassment was evident in the statements made by American and other Western allies at the Security Council and at the Human Rights Council. For example, the US and UK's statements at the October 14 Security Council meeting, which considered the Middle East without voting on the report, were carefully worded to suggest that the mandate was biased - but without impugning Goldstone's integrity. Indeed, the mandate had been biased, but Goldstone only accepted the position on the condition, accepted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that he would expand it and investigate all sides.

The statements from the Western allies were clearly thrown in as a sop to Israel and its supporters, but only an extraordinarily blinkered Likud politician would draw much comfort from the persistent calls from the US, the UK, France and others that Israel and Hamas should indeed investigate the allegations of war crimes in a transparent and impartial way. Even UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who came into office as a close friend of Israel, joined the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in calling for an impartial investigation - not to mention Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other respected non-governmental organizations.

Much of the strongest vilification comes from commentators who have clearly not read the report. The fact-finding mission found that there was a serious case to answer - not guilt - so even as they damned the report with faint praise, the US and its allies were implicitly endorsing its major conclusion - the need for a credible and independent investigation by both Israelis and Palestinians.

The report calls for a referral to the International Criminal Court only if after six months neither Israel nor Hamas have carried out the investigations. As with Sudan, the ICC does not have jurisdiction against a state such as Israel, unless the Security Council refers it. The ICC's convention actually provides that it only has jurisdiction where the states concerned have failed to investigate and initiate due process where warranted.

Well aware of the type of pressure that would be brought to bear, the Goldstone report also calls for referral to the United Nations General Assembly, which even if it does not have legal teeth, could continue to embroil Israel in unwelcome legal attention. Hot on the tails of the report's release, in early October, Israeli Vice Premier and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon cancelled a trip to Britain in November for fear of arrest on war crimes - the latest in a series of such cancellations. More can be expected.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset (parliament) in September, "We will not allow [former prime minister] Ehud Olmert, [opposition leader] Tzipi Livni and [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak, who sent our sons to war, to arrive at the international court in the Hague." One cannot help suspecting that this statement was a reminder to the White House that despite the Israeli prime minister's vigorous defense of Operation Cast Lead, that it was in fact the Labor/Kadima coalition that planned and initiated it.

There are some calmer voices in Israel, even among supporters of Cast Lead, who think that an investigation is a reasonable price to ward off increasing international isolation. After all, if no crimes were committed, why the noisy reluctance to look into them? In the minds of others, however, is the damning Israeli Kahan Commission report into the massacres at Sabra and Shatila during the 1982 Lebanon War, even though many believe it soft-pedaled on direct Israeli involvement and more particularly on former prime minister Ariel Sharon's role.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is how the report will play out in relation to Obama's Middle East peace plans. Will he earn that Nobel Prize? His credibility in the region is already suffering from the seeming impunity with which Netanyahu is scorning the US insistence on the settlement freeze that Israel was already committed to.

The US attempt to kill the Goldstone report at the Human Rights Council certainly makes Obama's job more difficult. It will become even more so if the report comes to the Security Council and the US ambassador vetoes a referral to the ICC if Israel did not institute an inquiry.

Indeed, the statements by the US, the UK and France calling for just such an inquiry could have added to the embarrassment of refusing to vote for a call for Israel to do what they all consider to be the right thing. Of course the Palestinians and their allies, one presumes, inadvertently, gave the US and others some excuses, since their resolution was not a straight yea or nay on the report. Even Goldstone himself complained that the actual resolution adopted by the council, while endorsing his report, did not mention Hamas and his call for it to also have an investigation. The resolution also included condemnations of Israeli behavior in East Jerusalem, which, even if justified, fogged the otherwise clear message of Goldstone's more balanced report on Gaza.

Despite heated discussions between Netanyahu and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Britain joined France in not voting at all, so they were not recorded as the abstentions which had been their original declared intent. With their close involvement in the Balkan wars and the subsequent tribunal, it would have been difficult to repudiate the former prosecutor of Balkan war criminals, quite apart from their expressed disquiet about Israeli actions in Gaza. The usual suspects, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia and Ukraine went along with the US in voting against, while the equally predictable non-aligned majority joined by China and Russia went with it.

The report now goes to the United Nations General Assembly and recommends a report back from Ban Ki-moon with his recommendations, which would then be referred back to the Human Rights Council. If Israel does not carry out the investigation mandated by the report, it will almost certainly be referred to the Security Council for action.

An American abstention there would be an act of courage. Indeed, the long process offers multiple opportunities for the White House to let Netanyahu's government know that there are limits to how many slights Obama can tolerate.

If the US cannot persuade its most favored aid beneficiary not to evict Palestinians in Jerusalem, how can it persuade Israel to investigate allegations against its armed forces? And can it trade diplomatic cover in Geneva and New York against Israeli cooperation in the peace process? Indeed the US could take hints from Brown, who reportedly was trying to extract concessions from Netanyahu on the Gaza blockade with the British and French vote in Geneva.

Used in that way, the White House's preferred strategy of procrastination could appear more pragmatic and less pusillanimous.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, (Nation Books, New York).

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