Against complacency: The lesson of Goldstone

Richard Goldstone’s reconsideration of the controversial fact-finding report on the Gaza war of 2008-09 is the latest Rorschach test for the Jewish community. It has elicited a wide range of reactions, from ecstatic claims of exoneration to lingering bitterness at the report’s “blood libel,” as Caroline Glick and Jeffrey Goldberg have branded it. My own sense in reading Goldstone’s Washington Post op-ed was a measure of relief that the report’s most serious allegation — that Israel intentionally targeted civilians in Gaza — was unfounded.

The past three decades of armed conflict, from the first Lebanon War in 1982, have posed a constant and profound challenge to the Israel Defense Forces’ vaunted doctrine of tohar ha-neshek, the code of honor that demands “purity of arms” from Israel’s soldiers. The combination of close proximity to a century-long rival, asymmetric warfare, which requires squaring off against an enemy who does not play by the same rules, and advanced military technology, which renders “collateral damage” a constant and indiscriminate likelihood, makes “purity of arms” very difficult to uphold. But now, Goldstone asserts, the evidence at hand suggests that Israel did not violate norms of decency and international law by intentionally targeting civilians in Gaza. This restores some measure of moral equilibrium to Israel. Perhaps, too, its tarnished name in the world can be repaired, especially if we recall two additional points made by Goldstone in his op-ed: first, that Hamas acted and continues to act against Israeli civilians without restraint, recourse to international law or accountability; and second, that international scrutiny of Israel’s deeds — for example, by the U.N. Human Rights Council — at times reveals a misplaced selectivity of focus.

And yet, now is not the time for an exaggerated sense of virtue, or the resulting complacency that accompanies it. We should remember that Richard Goldstone did not condone Operation Cast Lead, either in its overarching strategy or in its tactics. Nor did he justify the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians during the conflict. Moreover, he made clear that his task would have been greatly facilitated, and his conclusions different, had Israel agreed to cooperate with his investigation. Those who look to brand Goldstone a traitor to his people would do well to remember that Israel could have avoided the stigma of intentionality — and the attendant reputational damage — had it chosen to cooperate with his investigation.

Most significantly, an exaggerated sense of virtue will deflect Israel from the next major obstacle it faces: how to respond to the growing global movement in support of Palestinian statehood. This issue is likely to come before the U.N. General Assembly in September, where a large number of member-states, well over 100, have already declared their support. 

Israel faces a fundamental choice. It can choose to ignore this development by burying its head in the sand or even by initiating military action in Gaza to redirect the world’s attention. Or it can learn one of the key lessons of the Goldstone affair and take constructive steps to forestall its growing isolation and ostracization in the world. 

This means returning to the negotiating table with the Palestinian Authority — not with halfhearted gestures and an accusatory tone, but with a sincere desire to achieve a solution and a clear-eyed sense of the diminishing window of opportunity. To be sure, it would be a calculated risk, given the uncertainty in the Arab world of today (and the concomitant challenges presented by Iran). Indeed, it would require a “Nixon in China” or “Begin in Camp David” move by Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Why would Israel deign to take a bold step toward negotiating Palestinian statehood at this critical juncture? First, because it is a matter of self-preservation. If Israel and her supporters hold dear the ideal of a Jewish state, then Palestinian statehood is, ironically enough, one of its essential pillars. In the absence of Palestinian sovereignty, Israel will become the overlord of a polity that extends from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, the majority of whose residents will soon be Palestinian. At that point, Israel could either impose the will of the Jewish minority or vote itself out of existence as a Jewish state. 

The second reason is because it is just. More than 63 years ago, on Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 181 calling for the creation of Jewish and Arab states in Mandatory Palestine. The Arab side missed an opportunity to prevent decades of bloodshed when it failed to accept the principle of partition. Jews went on to realize their millennial aspiration and build up a powerful state.  Palestinians were forced into exile and have not yet escaped it. The time has come to accord them the recognition they need and deserve. The hour has never been more urgent in the run-up to the U.N. debate on statehood, and the partners — Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad — never more palatable.

Seen from this perspective, the relevant lesson of Richard Goldstone’s reconsideration is not that Israel has been proven right and can become complacent. Rather, it is that the cost of not engaging or cooperating with rational actors (for example, Goldstone or Fayyad) continues to escalate — and may one day become too high to bear. 

David N. Myers chairs the UCLA History Department. He is the author, most recently, of “Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz.”