Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

The price of impartiality

When Richard Goldstone (below) was a judge in his native South Africa, he was the kind of “judicial activist” who, if in a US court, could improve American jurisprudence by causing Antonin Scalia a fatal myocardial infarction; for he despised the system he was sworn to uphold, and used the power of his office to undermine it. Since, however, that system was Apartheid, most observers would call him an advocate for evenhanded justice — although this wouldn’t include the white Afrikaners who called him a traitor and threatened his life.

Richard Goldstone discusses his report on Cast Lead

Richard Goldstone discusses his report on Cast Lead.
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It is fair to say, then, that Goldstone is no stranger to controversy, and is willing to make himself unpopular in service of real impartiality between the powerful and the powerless. Even so, for the sake of his family, Goldstone now regrets his 2009 leadership of the investigative commission that studied the events of Israel’s 2008-2009 attack on Gaza — Operation Cast Lead — and the incidents preceding it. And again, Goldstone is maligned as a traitor to his people and menaced with mayhem.

There is a certain irony in Goldstone’s experience, for when he was named to head the investigation, leaders in Gaza were skeptical, feeling that because he was Jewish, he would tend to be biased in favor of Israel. Then, after his appointment, Israel objected because he was working with the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and Israel argued that the UNHRC was tilted against it.

Goldstone proceeded anyway, finally producing a report that distributed blame to both sides, saying that both the Israeli invasion and the Hamas rocket attacks on which Israel blamed its assault were war crimes and could also be classified as crimes against humanity. Given the disparity of scale, and the relative military power of the contestants, there are many who feel that this was a little too balanced — that, in fact, Israel should have been found more culpable than the Palestinians in Gaza — but in a further ironic twist, Gaza cooperated with the investigation, presenting evidence and testimony that the commission was able to verify, while Israel refused him entry. In consequence, he could enter Gaza only via Egypt, and could get testimony for Israel’s side of the story only by meeting witnesses outside the country. It has been suggested in this article and elsewhere that it did this so that he could get only Palestinian testimony, and the commission’s report could then be dismissed as prejudiced in favor of Gaza; if so, it didn’t work, for Goldstone was determined to hear what both sides had to say, and did.

Nonetheless, Israel was dissatisfied with the report and claimed bias; however, it couldn’t find traction for this argument thanks to Goldstone’s conspicuous objectivity. It therefore found what means it could to keep the commission’s report from reaching the hands of anyone empowered to act meaningfully on it. In the US, its lobbyists easily secured a lopsided congressional resolution summarily rejecting the report. Meanwhile, Israel “persuaded” Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to request that the UN defer a General Assembly vote referring the matter to the Security Council. How it did this is instructive, and makes a story unto itself.

Originally published as a review of a thenation.com article on Richard Goldstone.

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