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Does a the New "Goldstone Report" Stand to Reconfigure the U.S.'s Israel Policy?

Does Obama want to build on the good work he started in Turkey and Egypt and send a signal to Israel? Or is he prepared to let unprincipled lobbyists hijack his foreign policy?

Judge Richard Goldstone's report on the war in Gaza threatens the Obama administration's global public diplomacy options and its scrupulously graduated approach to whatever passes for a Middle East Peace process. State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly complained that Goldstone opted for "cookie-cutter conclusions" about Israel's actions, while keeping "the deplorable actions of Hamas to generalized remarks." However, Kelly urged the Israeli government to investigate further.

And that is in essence what Goldstone's commission asked for: investigation with the proviso that the Hamas-controlled authorities in Gaza do the same.

Susan Rice, Obama's envoy to the UN, said in the immediate aftermath of the report's publication that the United States had "very serious concerns about many of the recommendations" and pointed out a "very serious concern with the mandate that was given by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the Council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable." In fact, Goldstone refused to accept the position until he was assured that its mandate included looking into possible crimes committed by all parties in the conflict.

It was the mandate, not Goldstone's report, that Rice said was unacceptable, however. The report was still under study. She added, doubtless crossing her fingers for luck, "We will expect and believe that the appropriate venue for this report to be considered is the Human Rights Council (in Geneva) and that's our strong view. And most importantly, our view is that we need to be focused on the future," she said. However, how the administration reacts to the report could well be crucial to the future of its global credibility.

The Report's Recommendations

Rice understandably does not want to stand up in the Security Council to defend the indefensible, not least on behalf of a government that has so doggedly pushed back against the White House on settlements in the occupied territories. Indeed just as the White House has scrupulously restrained itself to asking Israel to honor its previous commitments on settlements, many of the Goldstone Mission's recommendations only reiterate previous Israeli commitments from Oslo onwards.

The core of the recommendations is that Israel itself conduct an impartial inquiry into the allegations made against it, or face a Security Council referral to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Admittedly, given experience of the Israeli Defense Forces' strategic reserve supply of whitewash kept in hand for just such occasions, the mission recommends that the Council set up an international commission to monitor the Israeli inquiry. The same applies to Hamas.

The report presents both a crisis and an opportunity to Obama's Middle East peace strategy.  Hitherto Israel has relied on an automatic U.S. veto on its behalf. The reflex action has been to defend Israel, but the optimistic could detect some signs of nuance in the administration's response.

A U.S. abstention in the Security Council, let alone a positive vote, for a referral to the ICC would send a seismic signal high up the Richter scale to Israelis about what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing to relations with their only ally in the world. His provocations on settlement activity are eroding the White House's credibility. Although it may be difficult to get, for example, a cut in aid money past a Congress still mesmerized by the Israel lobby, the administration could indeed abstain in the Council without reference to lobby-tied Capitol Hill.

A U.S. veto might indeed protect Israel from the ICC, but a report with the credibility of a revered and honored jurist like Goldstone will certainly help mount prosecutions across the globe in other countries, particularly Europe. Indeed, his report already contains that fallback position (once again for Hamas too), invoking the universal jurisdiction of the Geneva Conventions as well as referrals to the UN General Assembly and other avenues. Many Israeli military and civilian officials already have to check with government lawyers before setting off on international trips. There will be many more, whatever happens in the Security Council.

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