NEW YORK (JTA) – So far, the U.N. fact-finding mission into last January’s war in Gaza has spawned a 574-page report faulting Israel for war crimes, Op-Eds calling on foreign governments to hold Israel accountable -- including one by the report’s author -- and strident denunciations of the findings by Israeli officials.
This may be just the beginning of the battle.
Released on the same day the annual session of the U.N. General Assembly had its official kickoff, the report on the Israel-Hamas war is likely to be a central topic of discussion when leaders from around the world converge at U.N. headquarters this week for their annual speeches.
Then it will go another round at the end of the month, when the former South African judge who headed the inquiry, Richard Goldstone, formally presents his findings to the U.N. body that commissioned the post-mortem, the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The council could vote to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council.
In the end, however, the Goldstone recommendations are unlikely ever to acquire the force of law. The International Criminal Court cannot even consider war crimes prosecutions without the say-so of the Security Council -- and that’s unlikely to happen given the veto power the United States exercises there.
But the political and public relations challenges for Israel presented by the Goldstone report are unlikely to go away soon.
“When one makes the charges that there were indiscriminate attacks on civilians, it’s not just a dry U.N. document that gets discussed in Turtle Bay; this is a document that reverberates throughout the Muslim world,” said Dan Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith. “It ultimately makes its way into rhetoric -- by public officials, the media, extremist groups. It’s not an academic exercise; it comes back to bite us.”
The report chronicles allegations of Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinians in Gaza without provocation and accuses Israel of possible commission of crimes against humanity. It demands that Israel launch an internal investigation into the allegations and that Hamas investigate its rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.
In addition to posing various challenges to Israel, the report also produces a test of sorts for the United States, which recently joined the Human Rights Council in Geneva as part of the Obama administration’s effort to promote change in the much-criticized body.
Since its founding in 2006, the Human Rights Council has made the condemnation of Israel its central focus, with 26 of the 32 resolutions adopted by the body focused on the Jewish state.
The council's debate on the Goldstone report at the end of this month doubtless will produce another resolution -- plus opportunities for member states to condemn or defend Israel.
“That’ll be Sept. 29, the day after Yom Kippur, so people who care about Israel had better pray hard,” quipped Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, which is based in Geneva and is an accredited NGO at the Human Rights Council.
“Israel will be vilified,” Neuer said. “Israel will be compared to Nazi Germany. This is fuel for extremist elements.”
If the council adopts a resolution that refers the matter to the Security Council, that will further perpetuate talk of Israeli war crimes and represent yet another setback for Israel.
This isn’t just a PR problem. For an Israel desperate to steer international focus toward the threat of Iran, the debate over the Gaza conflict is a distraction and an impediment to building a coalition for further sanctions or support for an eventual military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. It also hampers Israel in potential negotiations with the Palestinians.
“We wish the world will concentrate on the real issues: Iran, the nuclear proliferation, the terror that Iran is harboring and financing and training,” Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told JTA. “This takes us to a detour because we have to put so much energy and hasbara” -- public relations -- “into something which was born in sin and which is very, very damaging.”
Israel refused to cooperate with the U.N. investigation from the get-go, claiming its mandate was inherently biased, and Israeli officials immediately sought to discredit the report after its release. They noted that Israel already has serious investigations of its wartime conduct under way, and President Shimon Peres called the report a “mockery of history” because it does not “distinguish between the aggressor and a state exercising its right for self-defense.”
With the report’s call for the Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court if Israel does not act upon its recommendations within six months, the battle over the Gaza conflict has the potential to be a repeat of the public relations war over the West Bank security fence.
The subject of numerous condemnations in the U.N. General Assembly, the fence issue eventually was referred to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, which ruled in an advisory opinion in July 2004 that the fence was illegal and infringed upon the rights of Palestinians. As with the Goldstone inquiry, Israel boycotted the process, arguing that the international court had no jurisdiction in the matter and that the proceedings were inherently biased.
This time, the issue is unlikely to reach an international court.
“We do not foresee a situation where this could come before the International Criminal Court,” Shalev told JTA. “We are going to have a concerted and concentrated strategy: to speak with our allies -- mainly the U.S. but also our European and other friends -- to show how one-sided this report is.”
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said it is the "strong view" of the United States that the report be considered only by the Human Rights Council, not the Security Council.
If it came to the Security Council, other veto-wielding members, such as Britain, also might vote against referring the matter to the International Criminal Court. Tasking the court with scrutinizing Israel’s wartime conduct in Gaza would set a problematic precedent for international scrutiny of other wars, such as those involving British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.