News Analysis

Will the UN’s West Bank probe be Goldstone all over again?

Ignoring the United Nations Human Rights Council’s anti-Israel bias won’t make the problem go away — it might actually make it worse

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Judge Richard Goldstone (second from right) and Christine Chinkin (right) at public hearings in 2009 about alleged Israeli violations committed during Operation Cast Lead. (UN/Flash 90)
Judge Richard Goldstone (second from right) and Christine Chinkin (right) at public hearings in 2009 about alleged Israeli violations committed during Operation Cast Lead. (UN/Flash 90)

The latest tit-for-tat between Israel and the United Nations Human Rights Council has the name Goldstone written all over it.

Last week, the nearly 50 member states of the UNHRC voted for the establishment of a fact-finding mission into Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank. Mere hours after the vote, indignant Israeli officials made it crystal clear that Israel will not cooperate with the investigation. A defiant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the council “ought to be ashamed of itself” and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called it “ridiculous” and “irrelevant.” According to media reports, Israel even intends to sanction the Palestinians for bringing up the matter.

But indignation alone is not going to be helpful. It is irrelevant why the UN wants to probe Israel again and again; once the decision of an UNHRC investigation has been made, Jerusalem is well advised to have a clear strategy about how to deal with it, as the now infamous 2009 Goldstone report showed.

Commissioned by the UNHRC after Operation Cast Lead, that report showed that Israel’s stubborn refusal to cooperate with the council is not in its best interest. In the report, Judge Richard Goldstone suspects both Hamas and Israel of having committed war crimes and “crimes against humanity” in Gaza during the winter of 2008/09.

Last year, Goldstone partially retracted his condemnation of Israel, writing in the Washington Post that if he had known then what he knows now, “the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” Israel rejoiced about the belated vindication, but lamented that the damage had been done. Why didn’t Goldstone know what he needed to know at the time when he wrote the report? Because Israel, convinced that the verdict of his fact-finding commission was predetermined, was unwilling to engage him.

“I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes,” Goldstone wrote about a year and half after his initial report unfairly condemned Israel. “Israel’s lack of cooperation with our investigation meant that we were not able to corroborate how many Gazans killed were civilians and how many were combatants.”

Jerusalem did not learn any lesson from the Goldstone saga. The fact is that the United Nations member states are determined to write a report about the settlements. It will undoubtedly be very unflattering, to the settlers in the red-roofed villages of the West Bank and to the politicians in Jerusalem. But ignoring the problem is not going to make it go away.

It is also important to keep in mind that there is one fundamental difference between the Goldstone report and the yet-to-be-written report about the settlements. Goldstone wrote about a war that had a beginning and an end. While the high number of casualties caused stormy debates about Israel’s alleged “disproportionality,” many world leaders understood that the Israeli army was reacting to years of constant rocket fire and felt the legitimate need to protect Israeli citizens.

The settlements, however, are an entirely different ball game. The entire world — quite literally — opposes what it considers Israeli expansionism in the West Bank.

Israel is right in pointing out the UN body’s hypocrisy and double standards. In his first response to last week’s decision to create a fact-finding mission, Netanyhau pointed out that 39 of the council’s 91 decisions have dealt with Israel, compared to three that dealt with Syria and one with Iran. The fact that a Hamas representative was invited to address the body’s members certainly didn’t help either to recommend it to Israeli leaders.

The fact that even Israel’s allies voted for the fact-finding mission clearly shows that Jerusalem’s clinging to the settlement project is the one issue the world does not want to tolerate any further

But all that doesn’t change the fact that the overwhelming majority of countries — among them four Western European nations — voted against Israel last Thursday.

Israel is not, as some claim, “internationally isolated.” The Jewish state has many friends around the globe, with rising superpowers China and India seeking to strengthen business ties. Many other strong nations are interested in increasing economic and military cooperation. But the settlements are a red flag for pretty much every nation in the world, and will continue to haunt Israel in the diplomatic arena. Israel can be an otherwise fine state, the international community argues, but as long as it keeps on building on the land the Palestinians need for their future state, how can there ever be peace?

The fact that even Israel’s allies — with the US the lonely exception — either voted for the fact-finding mission or abstained clearly shows that Jerusalem’s clinging to the settlement project is the one issue the world does not want to tolerate any further.

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