NY judge takes over UN Gaza probe after Israel critic resigns

Mary McGowan Davis replaces William Schabas, who stepped down amid Israeli accusations of ‘conflict of interest’ over his work for the PLO

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Former New York Supreme Court judge Mary McGowan Davis, named August 25, 2014 to the UN inquiry into the Israel-Hamas conflict (photo credit: Courtesy UN/Jean-Marc Ferre)
Former New York Supreme Court judge Mary McGowan Davis, named August 25, 2014 to the UN inquiry into the Israel-Hamas conflict (photo credit: Courtesy UN/Jean-Marc Ferre)

New York jurist Mary McGowan Davis will take the helm of a UN probe of last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip after inquiry chief William Schabas stepped down over allegations of anti-Israel bias, a spokesman said Tuesday.

McGowan Davis had served as a justice on New York’s Supreme Court, and chaired the UN follow-up committee to its probe into the 2008-2009 war between Israel and Hamas.

McGowan Davis is thought to be more sympathetic to Israel’s position during the 50-day war than Schabas, according to Haaretz. Nonetheless, Foreign Ministry sources told the paper that the report the committee is slated to publish on March 23 will still be highly critical of Israel.

Schabas sent a resignation letter to the head of the UN Human Rights Council on Monday after Israel accused him of having a “conflict of interest,” according to Rolando Gomez, a spokesman for the UN Human Rights Council.

William Schabas (YouTube screenshot)
William Schabas (YouTube screenshot)

The Israeli ambassador in Geneva sent a letter to the president of the Human Rights Council on Friday saying that “his initial appointment was completely improper and pointed to the one-sided, tainted and politicized nature” of the commission, according to a document published in Haaretz. Israel demanded Schabas’s replacement. Schabas “had a contractual relationship with the Palestinian side prior to his current assignment,” Ambassador Eviator Manor’s letter said. This constituted “a blatant conflict of interest” and rendered his continued role on the commission “simply untenable” and a violation of the “most basic principles of impartiality and fairness.”

In his resignation letter, Schabas explained that Israel’s complaint was linked to a brief legal opinion he prepared for the PLO in October 2012, for which he was paid $1,300.

“The complaint about my brief consultancy, as I understand it, is not about the content, which is of a technical legal nature, but the implication that in some way I am henceforth beholden to the Palestinian Liberation Organization,” he wrote.

While flatly rejecting that, Schabas said that “under the circumstances and with great regret, I believe the important work of the commission is best served if I resign with immediate effect.”

The UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, is scheduled to release its report in March. Schabas said in his letter that most of the research was done, and the writing phase was underway.

Schabas denounced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday as “masters of extravagant, ridiculous statements.”

In an interview with Channel 2, Schabas said he opted to step down since the allegations against him “created an obstacle” for the commission, and served as a “distraction” from the report’s conclusions.

His remarks came hours after Netanyahu called on the UN to shelve the investigation, and Liberman likened him to the archetypal biblical murderer Cain.

Netanyahu can “spin it anyway he wants, he and his foreign minister are masters of extravagant, ridiculous statements, and I guess they’ll keep doing that,” Schabas said of the Israeli leaders’ responses to his resignation.

The Canadian law professor insisted that his stepping down was not a victory for Israel.

“I don’t know that anybody won, because the commission is continuing with its work, and I believe it’s going to issue its report. It’s not a question of who wins or loses, it’s a matter of getting to the truth and doing justice,” he said.

Schabas said he was resigning because his position as chairman “created an obstacle for the work of the commission, a kind of distraction from the work of the commission, and I believe I had to get out of the way.”

The prime minister on Tuesday called on the UN to shelve the report shortly after Schabas quit.

“After the resignation of the committee chairman, who was biased against Israel, the report must not be published,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

Liberman said Schabas’s decision to step down “emphasizes once again the kind of people comprising this committee and its inherent bias.”

The resignation “proves that even the greatest hypocrites among international organizations cannot ignore the fact that Schabas’s appointment to investigate Israel is like the appointment of Cain to investigate who murdered Abel,” Liberman said.

AFP and Marissa Newman contributed to this report.

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