The Goldstone Report and Israel’s moral standing

April 4, 2011

It came as (almost) no surprise to me that Japanese utility workers remained at their crippled and highly toxic nuclear plant even at the risk of death. It came as (almost) no surprise either that in the chaos of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, there were no reported incidents of widespread looting. Japan is one vast community, mostly a single ethnic group, and societal pressures are intense. A nation, like an individual, has a culture.

This is why it was always so shocking that Israel was accused of deliberately targeting civilians during its brutal 2008-09 war with Hamas. That accusation was contained in a report to the United Nations by Richard Goldstone, an eminent South African judge who had been used by the international community previously to investigate war crimes. That Goldstone was also a Jew and a Zionist made the charge all the more powerful.

Now, though, Goldstone has retracted his findings. He no longer believes that Israel intentionally targeted civilians during the Gaza war (although he still believes Hamas did) and says that any deaths were inadvertent — the usual fog of war, the usual panicked decision. For Israel, it’s like the governor has called the warden — it’s been reprieved and taken off death row.

Once again, rockets are being fired into southern Israel from Gaza, some of them going up the coast as far as Ashkelon, a major city and port. Before the last war, from April 2001 to the end of 2008, 4,246 rockets and 4,180 mortar rounds were fired into Israel, killing 14 Israelis and wounding more than 400. The rockets have since been improved. Should more than the occasional rocket actually make it all the way to Ashkelon (one came close Monday) or should one of them come down on a school, another war with Hamas would start a moment or two later. Israel has already hit back, but not in force. In addition, a West Bank settler family of five was recently murdered in their home by what are universally thought to be Palestinians. This, too, has put Israel on edge.

The Gaza situation is complicated. Hamas apparently is having a tough time reining in its more extreme elements who want to immediately strike at Israel. At least for the moment, Hamas would prefer they would not. The region is unstable enough as it is. A little Arab-Israeli war could get out of control very fast, with Arab governments either no longer so firmly in control (or out of power completely) and unwilling or unable to stare down elements seeking to even the score with Israel.

At the moment, Goldstone is being pilloried and praised in Israel. He is condemned for what he once wrote and acclaimed for recanting it. But Goldstone is beside the point — a symptom of something larger. That his report was accepted in much of the world testified to how much Israel’s moral standing has plummeted. (It has also led countless Israelis and others to conclude that they are damned when they do the wrong thing and equally damned when they do the right thing.) Much of the world believed Israel would purposely kill civilians.

I do not argue that Israel is perfect. It continues to bully West Bank Palestinians, and I can cite the few villages where Israeli soldiers massacred Arabs during the 1947-48 period. But that was a civil war — want to compare it to our own? — and the war crimes were hardly ordinary occurrences. Americans committed war crimes at My Lai and now in Afghanistan and Iraq. My own former division, the glorious 42nd, was accused of murdering German POWs in World War II. Never, though, would I think that any of this was national policy or a strategy of war. I know my country better than that. We don’t do such things and, if it happens, we don’t put up with it.

As Goldstone acknowledges, Israel has looked into every charge of war crimes — incident by incident. Some soldiers have indeed been punished because some awful things happened. But overall, Israel adheres to a morality we all recognize and admire — and that its enemies, Hamas in particular, do not. Those who gleefully embraced the Goldstone report have to ask themselves why. They may hate the answer.

cohenr@washpost.com

Read Richard Goldstone’s column Reconsidering the Goldstone Report.

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