Israel After Goldstone

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Israel's predicament with the Judge Richard Goldstone's report accusing it of war crimes in Gaza, and the report's subsequent endorsement by the United Nations Human Rights Council, brings to mind the reaction of United States Vice-President Spiro Agnew to his indictment on corruption charges in 1973: "The bastards, they changed the rules, but they never told me."

Indeed, the rules have changed, and Israel cannot say that it was not warned that this is an era in which international law and universal justice are being forcefully promoted as pillars of an improved world order. That was not the case when the Arab-Israeli conflict started more than 60 years ago. Now, however, the international community is bound to scrutinize how wars are conducted, and crimes of war will not be allowed to go unpunished.

Or so it should be. Alas, the new rules apply in fact only to those countries that are not world powers. The UN's Human Rights Council would not have dared to put Russia in the dock for razing Grozny, Chechnya's capital, or China for brutally suppressing the people of Tibet and the Muslim Uighur minority.

In her first visit to Beijing, indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that when it comes to China, order and stability take priority over human rights. After all, she explained to a European colleague, one is not supposed to abuse one's banker. And this particular banker finances the Pentagon's entire budget.

Nor is it conceivable that the US or Britain would have been called to account by the Geneva Commission, itself composed by some of the most brutal abusers in the world, for the massive casualties they inflicted on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hundreds of civilian victims of NATO's massive bombardment of Serbia in 1999 will likewise remain forever anonymous.

It is a major flaw of the system of international law that the application of the lofty principles of universal justice should be conditioned by the global balance of political power, and that the world's most notorious abusers, such as Libya and Iran, are allowed to pose as guardians of human rights in UN agencies.

Can anyone really expect Israel to be impressed by Iran's righteous criticism of its "defiance of the law"? Indeed, as Justice Richard Goldstone himself was dismayed to discover, the Human Rights Council chose to censure Israel exclusively while not even bothering to mention Hamas, which Goldstone explicitly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It is not entirely far-fetched to assume that an "Obama effect" is having an impact on Israel's current international predicament. The onslaught on Israel was indirectly encouraged by the now widespread perception that, with Obama in the White House, America's unwavering support for the Jewish state can no longer be taken for granted. The indifference of some European countries towards Israel's call for help during the debate over the Goldstone report was not unrelated to their frustration at Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's refusal to freeze the settlements, as Obama has been insisting.

But, however understandable Israel's sense of being wrongfully treated might be, it should hold itself to higher standards, and avoid entrenching itself behind the walls of its own convictions. Israel's exploits in Gaza were a Pyrrhic victory, and the country is now bound to change its war doctrine of "offensive defense." A show of devastating force, with limited Israeli casualties at the price of an unlimited number of Palestinian civilian casualties, is no longer internationally sustainable. If repeated, this approach will irretrievably undermine Israel's standing in the family of nations.

Israel will have to adapt its war doctrine to the modern battlefield and to the sensibilities of the international community. Regular armies are no longer the exclusive threat to countries' security. Non-state actors - like Hamas and Hezbollah, or the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan - that shield themselves behind a defenseless civilian population expose the widening gap between the traditional rules of war and the realities of today's battlefield. It is doubtful whether Israel has the capacity to forge an international alliance that would adapt the rules of war to the conditions of asymmetric warfare.

The Goldstone report is not necessarily bad news for peace prospects in the Middle East. Arguably, the war in Gaza created a new kind of mutual deterrence in this war-torn region. Hamas was definitely deterred by Israel's merciless offensive, and Israel, whether it admits it or not, is bound to be deterred by the specter of Israeli leaders and army officers becoming the object of arrest warrants in Europe.

The entire legal process might well be cut short by a US veto at the UN Security Council, and Israel might still stick to its traditional claim about its right of self-defense. But the truth is that Israel's hands have been tied. Its leaders will now have to take much more resolute steps on the way to peace if the argument that they used to derail the Goldstone Report - that it should be seen as "hindering the peace process" - is to have any credibility at all.


Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace in Spain.
Copyright 2009, Project Syndicate
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