Moshe Halbertal and the Goldstone Report

January 19, 2010

pulseMoshe Halbertal’s article The Goldstone Illusion published in the New Republic on 6 November has become the touchstone for many seeking to defend Israel’s war on Gaza. Previous postings on this website have carried critiques by the Magnes Zionist and by eight of Halbertal’s former students, as well as by David Shulman. Here we draw attention to a more substantial critique published on 6 January 2010 in the online magazine Pulse by Jerome Slater, under the title Moshe Halbertal and the Goldstone Report.

The arguments Slater is evaluating

I begin here with Moshe Halbertal’s attack on the Goldstone Commission (“The Goldstone Illusion“) in the November 6th issue of New Republic. Halbertal is a Harvard PhD, a professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at Hebrew University, the author of a number of books on those subjects, and a former visiting professor at Harvard Law School. In light of those impressive credentials, together with the surface appearance of moderation and sophistication in Halbertal’s argument, his attack has received wide and generally respectful attention.

Halbertal has four main arguments against the Goldstone Commission. First, he charges that in several ways it was biased against Israel. Second, he strongly suggests that by ignoring the allegedly new threat of “asymmetrical warfare,” the Commission undercut Israel’s right of self-defense. Third, he claims that Israel is a victim of double-standards, on the grounds that the allegedly unintended civilian casualties in Gaza were far less than those caused by U.S. actions in Afghanistan as well as by the US/Nato bombing of Serbia in the 1990s, neither of which have led to international condemnation. Finally, in the article’s longest section Halbertal charges that the Commission’s discussion of Israeli violations of human rights and war crimes are “false,” “slanderous,” and “the weakest, the most biased, and the most outrageous” part of its report.

Here is a very brief summary of Slater’s response; it is worth looking at the full article for a detailed examination and engagement with Halbertal’s  argument:

Slater establishes, among other things, that Goldstone did not exceed his revised mandate by looking into the wider context of the military operations; that (as Jeremiah Haber has already put it), Halbertal’s accusation that the Israeli version of events is not examined is “simply false….the Israeli version of events is on every page, culled from official reports, news reports, and websites”’ that the Commission did not ignore Hamas, nor did it deny Israel its right to self-defence.

Slater points out that “asymmetrical warfare” is hardly new ‘for it is merely the current jargon for guerrilla warfare, in which poorly-armed insurgents rise up against much more powerful state armies, necessitating that they don’t make themselves easy targets’ and that ‘The obvious “alternative” to present Israeli policy is for it to end its occupation and repression of the Palestinians and allow the creation of a genuinely independent and viable state in the 23% of historical Palestine that remained after the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. However, Halbertal considers that to be “an extreme position,” held in Israel only by “the radical left.”’

Slater also looks at the principle of ‘last resort’ ‘ which requires that even in wars of self defense, every effort must first be made to resolve conflicts by peaceful means’ and shows convincingly that it was Israel, rather than Hamas, that torpedoed efforts to promote a ceasefire or truce and, further, that many Hamas initiatives that indicate it might have been moving towards an actual peace settlement were systematically rejected by Israel.

Slater deals at length, too, with the issue as to whether Israel deliberately targeted civilians – both what the Commission said on this question and what evidence from the past it ignored, looking in some detail at ‘the previous history of Israel’s attacks not only on crucial civilian infrastructures but on civilians directly [that] at least justifies the suspicion that it did the same in Gaza.’

Finally, Slater looks at what he terms ‘Omissions, Errors, and Understatements’ in the Report and concludes that this was not a war of self-defence for Israel and that : ‘Far from unfairly attacking Israel, in several respects the Goldstone Commission evaded or understated highly important legitimate criticisms of its behavior…’

See full articleJerome Slater is emeritus professor of political science and University Research Scholar, State University of New York at Buffalo.

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