U.N. War Crimes Allegation Won't Change Israel's Calculations

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A Palestinian man sits amid the ruins of his house in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 22, 2009.

Anyone waiting for Israeli generals and political leaders to face war crimes charges at The Hague over January's Gaza invasion ought not to hold their breath, despite a new report by a U.N. Human Rights Council accusing both Israel and Hamas of war crimes during the confrontation. And despite Israel's disquiet over losing the battle for international public opinion and growing criticism over its actions in Palestinian territories, the Israeli military is unlikely to do much differently the next time it goes into Gaza.

The U.N. investigation concluded that Israel's January offensive in Gaza had been "a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population." It also slammed the Jewish state's economic blockade of the territory. At the same time, it accused Hamas of war crimes for firing rockets at Israeli civilians. Israel, which refused to cooperate with the probe, slammed it as biased and accused it of "rewarding terrorism." That follows the pattern of Israel's dismissal of a steady stream of similar assessments of the Gaza operation by Israeli and international human rights organizations. On the basis of its own internal inquiries, the Israeli Defense Force insists its forces took extra care to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. But the U.N. report is potentially more damaging, and the fact that its key author is the widely respected Jewish South African Judge Richard Goldstone makes it more difficult to dismiss his work as an anti-Israel smear. Goldstone has ties to Israel and a reputation for honest exploration of politically sensitive subjects built in the course of his work at the head of the his country's Truth Commission and, later, of the Hague tribunal for war crimes committed in former Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, his report is being read as a smear in the Israeli mainstream.

Unlike the charges by the various human rights groups, the U.N. report could potentially carry legal consequences. It is scheduled to be discussed on Sept. 28 at the U.N. Human Rights Council, where member countries might seek to have the matter taken up by the Security Council — which can, if it chooses, refer the matter to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Although political factors make such a course of action highly unlikely at the moment, Israel's foreign ministry is taking no chances. It is launching a diplomatic push focused on the veto-wielding five permanent Security Council members (Russia, China, Britain, France and the U.S.) to prevent it being taken up.

The report's release coincides with a deadlock in the Obama Administration's efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell is currently in Israel, struggling to bridge the gap between the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' insistence that he won't talk to the Israelis unless they halt all construction on territory captured in 1967 (a demand echoed by the U.S.), and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's offer of only a partial freeze that exempts projects already approved and does not apply to East Jerusalem. The Administration had hoped to cajole Abbas and Netanyahu to join Obama for a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month where they would relaunch direct talks, but right now the differences between the two sides make such an event unlikely. And at least one Israeli commentator, Haaretz's Aluf Benn, wondered whether Obama might use the help Israel will need in getting Goldstone's report shelved as leverage on the settlement question. That, too, is highly unlikely for a variety of reasons, including the fact the the Administration may have concluded from Netanyahu's surge in popularity for resisting Obama's settlement-freeze demand that publicly holding the conservative Israeli leader's feet to the fire doesn't get the desired results.

Although Israel is aware of having lost the Gaza battle in the court of international public opinion — and has warned officers involved in the operation of the danger of arrest in third countries while traveling in their private capacities — the operation enjoyed overwhelming domestic political support. And Israel's heavy-handed approach in what it called Operation Cast Lead, which inflicted heavy casualties and widespread damage to Gaza's infrastructure, has been embraced as a model of effectiveness by the Israeli military, because it is seen as having ensured that Israeli forces suffered hardly any casualties while operating against a dangerous guerrilla force in a hostile urban environment. Should Israel deem it necessary to launch a new offensive in Gaza, it's tactics are likely to be unchanged despite the international criticism.

Hamas, for its part, was similarly dismissive of the report's findings on its rocket fire. "This report equates the victim with the aggressor," said Hamas Gaza spokseman Ismael Radwan, a statement that sums up the Israeli position, too. At the very heart of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, after all, is the question of just who is the victim.