On Sept. 15, 2009, the United Nations released a 574-page report, dubbed the Goldstone Report, of a fact-finding commission led by Judge Richard Goldstone into possible human rights violations committed by both Palestinians and Israelis during the three-week Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in late 2008.
That report became a lightning rod of controversy, as it alleged that the Israeli military was not careful in avoiding civilian casualties. Israel supporters rushed to the Jewish state’s defense with cries of bias, misinformation and unfairness.
That was then; this is now.
On April 1, 2011, Goldstone changed his message. His op-ed, published in the Washington Post, read: “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.”
While Goldstone’s column is far from a complete retraction of the Goldstone Report, it has reignited debate — locally, nationally and internationally — among both pro- and anti-Israel communities as to the validity of the initial report.
But two years later, is the damage to Israel’s global image already done?
As several local Jewish leaders told the Chronicle, the answer may be an unfortunate, “Yes.” But like most answers in the Jewish world, it’s a complex one.
Due in part to the Goldstone Report, “Now there’s this impression, this myth that the Israeli army targets civilians, or at least isn’t careful when bombing or trying to defend itself. That’s not an image to have; it’s very hard to come back from,” said Leehee Kanne, Pittsburgh’s community shlicha and Israel Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. “[The Goldstone Report] was very high profile. I don’t think his retraction is as high profile. It’s always easier a few years later to take something back, but life doesn’t work like that.”
Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Pittsburgh District’s Zionist Organization of America, said that Goldstone’s column was just a start to repair his report’s impact.
“A lot of damage has been done in two years because of that report,” he said. “Goldstone should go out on a campaign publicly speaking to try to undo the damage he’s done. People have used that report to delegitimize the State of Israel; anti-Israel groups on campuses have held it up like a badge of courage.”
Goldstone’s retraction attempted to explain the supposed anti-Israel slant of the Goldstone Report.
“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 crime,” he wrote. “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.”
He goes on to praise Israel for investigating about 400 of the charges brought about by the Goldstone Report.
“Our main recommendation was for each party to investigate, transparently and in good faith, the incidents referred to in our report… Israel has done this to a significant degree; Hamas has done nothing,” he wrote.
Not everyone sees Goldstone’s retraction as such a game changer.
The retraction “is important to Israel’s friends, but Israel’s enemies won’t care,” said Dr. Naftali Kaminski. “This won’t vindicate Israel for them.” Kaminski is active with J Street, but was speaking for himself.
Ultimately, many see the entire Goldstone fiasco — the report, the fallout and now the retraction — as an opportunity for a lesson learned by Israel. Goldstone consistently noted that Israel was not forthcoming with information during his commission’s fact-finding mission — a factor he said largely accounted for the report’s alleged bias against Israel.
“We wouldn’t have been in this situation if Israel had worked with Goldstone and allowed this conclusion to emerge sooner rather than later,” said Amy Spitalnick, press secretary for J Street’s national office. J Street’s local leader, Nancy Bernstein, declined to comment, referring questions to Spitalnick.
“I actually think the report did something very important,” said Kaminski. “The Israeli military did take it very seriously. All that criticism and anger, in the end, the military in some way responded like a big business corporation. First deny, then make sure they know they didn’t do anything wrong. They investigated; they did find some problems. On some level, they’ll be more careful [in the future].”
Israel’s response thus far has been arguably calm and diplomatic. In a cabinet meeting on April 3, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reported that he had asked National Security Council Chairman Yaakov Amidror to convene a special staff meeting, “in order to reverse and minimize the great damage that has been done by this campaign of denigration against the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu said he would “demand the justice that is due to Israel” by working with the “international community and the U.N.”
In his column, Goldstone expressed his now-dashed hope that Hamas would investigate the incidents outlined in the Goldstone Report, “especially if Israel conducted its own investigations.”
On this issue, reaction seems fairly unified: though, ideally, Hamas would do so, Goldstone’s expectations were unrealistic.
“It was a fair call to ask them to investigate,” said Spitalnick, “but Hamas should be condemned for not looking into the charges.”
Pavilack said, “No, it’s totally unrealistic to expect information from them.”
Whether Goldstone’s column does eventually change the United Nation’s stance on the Goldstone Report (at press time, U.N. spokesman Cedric Sapey said the world body was standing behind the report, telling the Associated Press, “U.N. reports are not canceled on the basis of an op-ed in a newspaper.”) or the world’s view of Israel, the conversation is back on the table.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)