Support in Israel for a domestic independent commission of inquiry into the Gaza attacks is growing as fears mount in advance of the UN General Assembly’s debate on the Goldstone report next week. Below are two opinions published over the past 24 hours in Haaretz. One commentator sees the December-January attacks as completely legitimate, while the other raises serious questions as to the real reasons behind the attack itself and the tactics used in Gaza (political rivalry, elections). One cares only for “what is good for Israel” while the other also raises concerns about the death of Palestinian civilians. Both think a domestic inquiry is Israel’s only way out of this mess.
These questions should be at the center of an investigation into Operation Cast Lead. An investigation is necessary because of the political complexities that resulted from the operation, the serious harm to Palestinian civilians, the Goldstone report and its claims of war crimes, and the limits that will be imposed on the IDF’s freedom of operation in the future. There is no room to argue that the government should be allowed to govern without interference and investigations, with the public passing judgment at the ballot box. The government changed after the Gaza operation and the questions remain troublesome.
The investigations by the army and Military Police are meant to examine soldiers’ behavior on the battlefield. They are no substitute for a comprehensive examination of the activities of the political leadership and senior command, who are responsible for an operation and its results. It’s not the company or battalion commanders who need to be investigated, but former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and the heads of the intelligence chiefs and Foreign Ministry, who were party to the decisions. It is also important to investigate Barak and Livni’s election campaign advisers to find out if and how the campaign affected the military and diplomatic efforts.
Why did the “cease-fire” agreement between Israel and Hamas collapse, and who decided and why on an IDF operation against the tunnel uncovered near the Gaza border on November 4, which resulted in renewed escalation in the south?
Before embarking on Cast Lead, were diplomatic alternatives explored for achieving calm in the south? Was Hamas’ proposal for renewing calm in exchange for opening crossings seriously considered in Israel, or did the government only want a military operation?
How did the rising popularity of the opposition parties, Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, as reflected in polls at the time, affect Barak and Livni’s stances before and during the operation?
What was the importance of image as informed by concepts such as “restoring deterrence” and “overcoming the trauma of the Second Lebanon War” in the decisions to embark on the operation and introduce ground forces?
Did the cabinet receive assessments that discussed the possibility that hundreds of Palestinian women and children would be killed? Did ministers voice fiery rhetoric at cabinet meetings that could have been understood as encouragement to harm Palestinian civilians? Did Olmert and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz intervene and silence such voices?
How did the personal and political infighting between Olmert, Barak and Livni affect the decision making? Why did Barak support a humanitarian cease-fire immediately after the operation began, and why did Olmert and Livni reject his proposal? Why did Livni change her position as the fighting ensued and Olmert insisted on continuing the operation?
Who decided to bomb the flour mill and sewage treatment center in Gaza, and why?
Did Olmert weigh the expected damage to Israel at the United Nations when he rejected the Security Council’s call for an immediate cease-fire?
Where did Olmert disappear to on January 13 when Barak and Livni could not find him in an effort to offer a cease-fire?
A state commission of inquiry should be established. Such committees have been set up before for significantly less important issues than the war in Gaza. But the political reality is paralyzing: The defense minister and the chief of staff fear the fate of their predecessors who lost their jobs because of the Yom Kippur War and the two Lebanon wars. The prime minister is afraid of Barak and Ashkenazi. The Knesset State Control Committee under Kadima’s Yoel Hasson will not initiate an investigation against Livni. Without a state commission of inquiry, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss must undertake the role himself. He has already proved that he is afraid of neither Olmert nor Barak.
It could be Maccabi Tel Aviv and its petty cash box or the riddle of whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will really meet with President Barack Obama in about two weeks. Why a riddle? Because the prime minister was invited to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, which will be held in Washington this year, and unless a meeting with the president is assured in advance, he won’t go.
In the meantime, the meeting hasn’t been set. It will be held only if it’s clear that Bibi will have answers on the settlement issue. If Mitchell reports that Bibi has nothing new to say, Obama will make himself “too busy” to see him and Bibi will not degrade himself by coming to Washington without meeting the president.
Obama will not call Bibi to account for the Goldstone report. The administration has accepted Operation Cast Lead with understanding. If only for the reason that the American armed forces themselves are killing civilians in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and anywhere else they come into contact with civilians.
With all the changes in warfare methods, the day will come when the Geneva Conventions will have to be adjusted to regular armies’ wars against terror groups, which mostly target civilians.
But until we get there, the subject and victim of the Goldstone Commission is Israel, which has been tarnished as responsible for war crimes, and perhaps even crimes against humanity. Were former prime minister Ariel Sharon to wake up today, maybe he would face the commission and maybe he wouldn’t, but he would probably say it was one of Israel’s most justified wars.
But if he could hear how many legal opinions were aired over Operation Cast Lead, he would likely fall back into a coma from shock.
After eight years of restraint, the IDF launched its most legally inspected military campaign. It was reviewed by many, from Menachem Mazuz and his deputy to every brigade’s legal adviser.
Israel wasn’t the one to choose Gaza as its battlefield, Hamas did. Despite this, the IDF is probing about 100 complaints, 25 of them already in the Military Police’s hands. At the end of the operation a team headed by a senior officer who did not take part in it investigated it.
But according to Goldstone, every response to a terror attack, from the Park Hotel to blowing up buses, is disproportionate.
As infuriating as the Goldstone Commission’s conclusions are, the primary guilt lies with the government, which refused to cooperate with the commission. Perhaps it could have reduced the damage by doing so. Ehud Barak, who led the objection, adopted the second part of Disraeli’s statement “never complain and never explain.” As one who treats the civilian Bibi with the same scorn former defense minister Moshe Dayan used to treat former prime minister Levi Eshkol, it was he who pushed Netanyahu to avoid cooperating with the commission.
Senior jurists believe Israel erred in boycotting the commission, and Bibi is erring even more in accepting Barak’s dictate. After all, he is the prime minister.
The right thing to do now is to set up a functional examination committee to look into each incident listed by the Goldstone report, stressing that we’re doing it to remove the stain that commission has cast on us. For our part we have already drawn the conclusions, but it is also important that the world hears what we have to say. The international damage done to Israel, accompanied by condemnations and boycotts, requires a convincing response.
Thus Bibi’s hint to the veteran Washington Post interviewer, Elizabeth Morris “Lally” Graham Weymouth, is understandable. He said we’re examining the possibility of setting up an independent investigation committee to probe the accusations against us in the campaign in Gaza. Although several ministers agreed with Bibi that this could minimize the damage already caused to Israel, Barak insisted that such a committee would not be formed.
It is not clear what Barak is afraid of. But despite his high IQ, he is only the defense minister. He is not the prime minister, nor will he be. According to pollster Mina Tzemach’s survey released over the weekend in Yedioth Ahronoth, if elections were held today Bibi’s Likud party would rise to 33 Knesset seats and Barak’s Labor party would be reduced to seven (Kadima would maintain its strength).
From setting up an examination committee that won’t be a whitewash to carrying out the commitment to remove illegal outposts – Bibi must internalize that he is a prime minister with a sound backing and do what is best for Israel.