Last Words on The Goldstone Op-Ed Fiasco

Lots of words have now been spent on the op-ed by Richard Goldstone of last Friday, and I have been one of the worst consumers. I’m hoping this is the last of my spillage on a matter that does more to show how absurd the politics around Israel-Palestine are than anything else.

The Associated Press reported today of what some call Goldstone’s flip-flop of his flip-flop. But it was never so. As I pointed out, the Report overstated a case regarding Israeli intent to target civilians, Goldstone then stated that Israel’s investigations “indicate” that such was not the case, and now he’s saying that nothing in his current view

White phosphorous raining down in Gaza during Cast Lead. This is what need attention, not Richard Goldstone

means that the original report should be nullified, in part or whole.

In fact, all of that is internally consistent. But it doesn’t play that way in the heated realm of Israel-Palestine politics.

Human rights groups have already made their statements, including one by Human Rights Watch and another today in the same Washington Post as Goldstone by my former boss, Jessica Montell of B’Tselem.

I’m ending here with comments on two other pieces by two guys, both friends and colleagues.

The first is Jerry Haber at the Magnes Zionist. Jerry and I have had a bit of back and forth parsing words in the Goldstone report and the op-ed. I think we agree on the most essential point, though—that whatever the Report said or didn’t say or Goldstone said or didn’t say on the matter of intentionality, the level of destruction in Gaza, both of civilian lives and of homes and other civilian property, merits serious investigation. Even without intent to specifically target civilians (which Goldstone merely says is no longer “indicated” and that still means it should be investigated), the central question still is whether proper safeguards to prevent harming civilians were in place. I think Jerry agrees with me that such investigation is still lacking.

But Jerry also says this in his blog piece posted earlier today:

Judge Goldstone has not expressed regret, apology, nor has he recanted the report. On the contrary he has “no reason to believe that any part of the report need be reconsidered at this time.” He wrote an op-ed with a conciliatory tone.

With all due respect to Jerry (and I have a great deal of it), we will continue to disagree on the tenor of Goldstone’s op-ed. Yes, he did not say, nor do I believe he meant, that any part of a fact-finding report that was investigatory rather than a conclusive legal document should now be rescinded. The report called for investigations, which means that such investigations could just as well exonerate the parties as convict them. Indeed, Goldstone stirred up controversy in the past with this very point, saying that “If this was a court of law, nothing would be proven.”

But that is not the same as saying Goldstone has not expressed regret or apology. He has not recanted, true, but the conciliatory tone of his op-ed was surely not without some meaning and intent. Goldstone wanted Israel to be seen differently regarding its behavior in Gaza. He didn’t just intend to clarify one point—else, why would he state, in the opening paragraph, that “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” Seems like a big statement if only one point of a 550-page document needed clarification.

It behooves us to take seriously what Goldstone did here. For better or worse (I’d say worse), anti-occupation forces of many stripes allowed the right to make this issue about Goldstone from the beginning, as much as human rights organizations tried to keep focus on international law. The reality is that we need to deal realistically with what Goldstone’s new statements mean.

My other disagreement touches on points that go beyond this issue. MJ Rosenberg has, from the moment this op-ed came out, maintained that this was all about Goldstone caving to pressure from The Lobby.

I’ve called it when I’ve seen AIPAC and the other groups who lobby and advocate in Washington in support of virtually all Israeli actions, no matter how criminal and self-destructive, behind some development. But I have to wonder in this case: if this was about caving in to pressure, why would Goldstone cave in now? After all, the firestorm around Goldstone personally was really raging a year, a year-and-a-half ago. He has largely been out of the spotlight for months now. Until this episode.

Some might suggest that it was a more private whispering campaign, reaching out to Goldstone directly. Again, that was going on before, so what has changed?

We’re probably never going to know what really happened here, and each of us will approach the question from our own perspectives, shaped by our own experiences. My approach is shaped to a great degree by my meeting with Goldstone in 2009. While there was much about the man that certainly impressed me, I got a very strong sense that he really didn’t get the politics around Israel-Palestine, or within the Jewish community. Indeed, I found him to be grounded in such matters as facts and evidence, which have only a thin relationship with public perception and, by extension, politics.

And that’s what I think this is. I think the flaws I mentioned in my earlier piece reflected that weakness, and so did his earlier, controversial statement. Goldstone is simply not adept at understanding the effects his words will have. Like many people who work in law, who work with clear rules, precedent and linear thinking, the nuances of public communications are not his strong suit.

What this whole fiasco shows, more than anything else, is the need to shift the focus away from Richard Goldstone, and even the report and back to the requirements of international law in this matter. As Jessica Montell points out in the Washington Post: “In the operation, according to rigorous research by B’Tselem, Israel killed at least 758 Palestinian civilians who did not take part in the hostilities; 318 of them were minors. More than 5,300 Palestinians were injured, over 350 of them seriously. More than 3,500 houses were destroyed, and electricity, water and sewage infrastructure was severely damaged.”

Even massive damage to civilians and infrastructure does not, in and of itself, constitute proof of criminal action under international law. But it cries out for a far more serious investigation than just looking at the actions of individual soldiers in the field and 52 criminal investigations, only three of which have yielded indictments. [Note: the “over 400” referred to in the UN document are mostly military investigations of an operational nature, not criminal] And these must include not only the actions of soldiers, but also military and political leaders. The question of whether adequate steps were taken to protect civilians has not yet been seriously asked.

It’s not about Richard Goldstone, folks. It’s about the people of Gaza who were killed, who were wounded and whose lives were irreversibly damaged in Operation Cast Lead. It’s about the people of southern Israel too, and if we can look at all of that, maybe we can also look at the effects of the siege on Gaza, the ongoing occupation, the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the attacks on Israelis and their democracy….all of that can be opened by getting serious about Cast Lead, in a fair and impartial manner on all sides.

Postscript: MJ Rosenberg tweeted the following in response to this article: Good piece but I don’t think it’s the lobby. It’s the whole community & the desire to be acceptable to it.

4 thoughts on “Last Words on The Goldstone Op-Ed Fiasco

  1. Goldstone told egregious lies, and lent his name to a report which said that Israel deliberately targeted Palestinian civilians. He acted ultra vires when he wrongly and equally egregiously imputed negative motives to the IDF (which he could not know about and were beyond the remit of his enquiry).

    The report is in circulation and Goldstone refuses to withdraw it. The poison from it is still infecting society, so pardon me if I can’t be too happy that he did or did not flip flop on his recantation. For the record, I believe that Goldstone would say anything to save his own miserable skin.

    When Hamas deliberately embeds itself within civilian populations, booby traps buildings and uses its people as human shields there will be damage and you know as well as I that Hamas will make the most of it. Goldstone sought to make Israel alone responsible for it rather than malign and bring the justice the main culprits, Hamas, who were ultimately culpable for the numbers of deaths of civilians in Gaza

    It’s a fruitless exercise to believe that Hamas can be reasoned out of its murderous intent. If that were the case there would have been peace when Israeli troops left Gaza. The “siege” of Gaza, inasmuch as there is one, is as a result of cynical and calculated terrorist attacks, as well you know.

    Hamas seems to be very serious about goading Israel towards another Cast Lead. What do you suggest that Israel do, sign a collective, national suicide pact, and let them take over or go in again, but this time with a remit to root out the Hamas cancer once and for all?

  2. Mitchell,

    Excellent piece. It’s unfortunate that the commentary of the Goldstone Report has been so polarized (and Babs hasbara talking points are an example of that, as well as the reflexive defense of Goldstone in the previous posts). I appreciate your intelligent analysis on the virtues and weaknesses of the Goldstone Report.

  3. Pingback: Goldstone in the balance | ikners.com

  4. Very nice piece, Mitchel Plitnick. I’m going to start reading this website more regularly.

    You are probably right that we will never know why Goldstone issued this “retraction” that doesn’t actually retract anything. However, reading the issue in the context of your interpretation of his apolitical, linear, legalistic, naive set of mind, I’m going to go with the suggestion that he just couldn’t put up with being ostracized within the Jewish community. People who don’t understand politics and are used to framing everything in legalistic binary terms can’t deal with the internal contradictions and paradoxes of human behaviour–especially when they are the target of it.

    But I do think that Goldstone sacrificed his integrity and his reputation with that op-ed.

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