Sunday, April 3, 2011

The disavowal, by Richard Goldstone, a South African judge who led a panel of experts for the United Nations, appeared in an opinion article he published in The Washington Post. He said that he no longer believed that Israel had intentionally killed Palestinian civilians during its invasion of Gaza.

Many here considered the essay truly significant. Commentary, came in a flood, ranging from gracious praise to vindictive indignation. Some cited the message of Proverbs 28:13 that whoever confesses and renounces his sins “finds mercy.”

Still, the question remained whether the harm the Goldstone Report caused — the ammunition it gave to those who view Israel as a pariah state and question its right to exist, the campaigns that have stopped some Israeli officials from traveling abroad for fear of arrest for war crimes — could be undone.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday that Israel would work “to formulate practical and public diplomacy measures, in order to reverse and minimize the great damage that has been done by this campaign of denigration against the State of Israel.”

A number of officials said that while the blow to Israel’s name had been great, the renunciation of the harshest conclusion would help in the future.

“The one point of light regards future actions,” Gavriella Shalev, a law professor and most recently Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said on Israel Radio. “If we have to defend ourselves against terror organizations again, we will be able to say there is no way to deal with this terror other than the same way we did in Cast Lead.”

Cast Lead is the name Israel gave to its three-week invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009 aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire from there into Israeli communities. Israel killed up to 1,400 Palestinians in that operation and lost 13 of its own. The Goldstone Report accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes because of harm to civilians.

In his essay, Mr. Goldstone said that as a result of Israeli military investigations of soldiers’ wrongdoings and errors, he no longer believed that the harm done to Palestinian civilians had been intentional. He also commended Israel for carrying out the investigations while condemning Hamas for not doing so.

Gen. Avi Benayahu, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said on Israel Radio that he would like to invite Mr. Goldstone to Israel, show him around and enlist him in the state’s future public relations needs.

“If there is another Lebanon war, something that cannot be dismissed out of hand, and if we are required to face another military conflict and challenge in Gaza, we will meet the same reality,” he said.

General Benayahu recently revealed that he traveled to London in 2010 under an assumed identity because of fear of attracting anti-Israel protests outside his hotel and of being arrested for alleged war crimes.

For others, the damage to Israel’s reputation by the Goldstone Report left little room for forgiveness.

“The despicable and shameful act that he perpetrated is contrary to the most fundamental moral values, natural justice and common sense to the extent that it negates his right to absolution,” wrote columnist Ben Caspit in the Hebrew Maariv newspaper.

In an e-mail response to a request for elaboration, Judge Goldstone himself declined to comment beyond his article.

Some on the left said they were worried that legitimate concerns of Israel’s conduct in the war had been buried under the extreme accusations of the Goldstone document.

“By raising a completely false accusation he masked in some ways the real complex issues of such a struggle,” said Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University and co-author of the army’s ethics code. Speaking by telephone from Cambridge, Mass., where he is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School this semester, Mr. Halbertal added, “These have to do with to what degree soldiers assume risks in order to minimize collateral harm to civilians. This is where the moral challenge lies. And his retraction could now force the international community to look at these problems in a more serious way rather than by propaganda.”

In late 2009, Mr. Halbertal wrote a highly critical article about the Goldstone Report, saying that it was credulous on Hamas and wildly off-base about Israel.

Much about the Goldstone Report has been misrepresented by those with agendas both pro- and anti-Israel. Running to more than 500 pages and including extensive and detailed testimony from Palestinians in Gaza, the report was essentially dismissed in Israel and by its supporters because of its harshest accusations.

But human rights organizations say much of the report remains valid.

“Many things that were originally part of the report are still out there as nagging questions for Israel to answer,” said Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group. “Most Israelis don’t know about what happened in Cast Lead. There is still the need for an independent and effective inquiry into our conduct there.”

Others, even among harsh critics of the report, acknowledge that it did push the Israeli military into more rigorous investigations. “Clearly the Goldstone Report was the catalyst,” Gerald Steinberg a political science professor and director of NGO Monitor , a pro-Israel advocacy group that tracks the work of non-governmental organizations critical of Israel, said of the military probes.

“Before, the army high command did not understand the centrality of such accusations and the damage they could cause. Now they do, and that is a good thing.” He added that nonetheless the damage wrought by the report far outstripped any benefits.

In Gaza, the Hamas justice minister, Mohammad al-Ghoul, said in an interview that there was nothing to investigate because shooting rockets was “a right of self-defense of the Palestinian people in the face of the Israeli invasion and mass killing of Palestinians.”


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