Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Will the Goldstone Report Force an Israeli Commission of Inquiry into IDF War Crimes in Gaza?

When the Goldstone Report was published, the initial reaction of the Israeli government and the IDF was to push back hard. After all, last summer they had managed to silence "Breaking the Silence," the IDF veteran group that published testimonies from IDF soldiers in the Gaza Op. Had Israeli society reacted to the BtS testimonies by establishing a Commission of Inquiry then, as called for by distinguished Israeli writers, intellectuals, Haaretz, and Nahman Shay, there would have been little fuss in the world over the Goldstone report. On the contrary, the Goldstone report would have been significantly altered, since Goldstone's recommendation was for Israel and Hamas to set up Commission of Inquiries. But Israel, like Hamas, is incapable of engaging in any significant self-criticism and has been incapable for decades. The Winograd Commission was forced upon the Olmert government by an unruly public; the Or Commission was set up to heal Labor's relations with potential Palestinian Israeli supporters. Nothing at all came of the interminable discussions of the latter; the former simply embarrassed Olmert. The last serious Commission of Inquiry dealt with the first Lebanon War, especially Sabra and Shatila. Sharon was burned by that one, but only temporarily. No, the only commission that managed to set into motion a political sea change was the Agranat Commission after the Yom Kippur War, and the conclusions of that commission, initially, were quite tame.

So why would the Israeli government – a very rightwing government, whose "leftwing" fig leaf (Ehud Barak) was almost detained in London this week for his responsibility for Israeli war crimes, and which feels no pressure by the Israeli electorate -- set up a commission to investigate Gaza? The answer is simple: to whitewash, to head off international repercussions, to rap a few knuckles, to buy time – in short, to kill the Goldstone report. With the US representative on the UN Human Rights Council calling for a commission of inquiry, and with European countries being able to hold court proceedings for IDF officers, there is growing pressure for Israel to do something on its own.

That is why even Bibi is considering setting up a commission, according to Haaretz. Or maybe not; the story was written by Barak Ravid, who is notorious for publishing spin and rumors.

My hunch is that if Bibi goes with a Commission of Inquiry, it will be one with a limited mandate and appointed by the government, and not an independent, judicial commission. Yet a commission is not likely and a serious commission is impossible. Bibi, who generally crumples under pressure, will feel the greatest pressure from his right. And I believe that he is genuinely upset, shocked, and amazed, that anybody questions the morality and the adherence to the code of ethics of the IDF. So even though there will be international consequences, it makes more sense for him to continue to conduct an international campaign against the report

In the meantime, Judge Goldstone told Christiane Amanpour that Israel intentionally targeted civilian building and installations. Israel, of course, argued that those installations were used to house weapons. But according to Goldstone, there was no evidence of weapons. Of course, had Israel cooperated with the Goldstone Commission from the beginning, the final report may have been somewhat different. Or not, after all, from what I have seen, much of the Goldstone report was known in real time back in January – there were few surprises. Still, the tone may have been a bit different, and Israel's version of the story may have had some effect. But Israel boycotted Goldstone, and now it may have to open its own commission.

More likely, it won't. And for those who think that the only way Israel can come to its senses is through external intervention and pressure, that has to be good news. I, for one, am grateful that Israel is sticking close to the script. Israel is a systematic violator of human rights, but unlike many other systematic violators, it is intensely sensitive to its international reputation. That is why the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment campaign is so attractive. There is no other violator of human rights in the world that is more sensitive to world public opinion (and governmental opinion) than Israel.

And Judge Goldstone will not be silenced. I have now heard him speak several times. Listen to him speaking with Christiane Amanpour here He is an eloquent and persuasive spokesman against Israel's war crimes, and against the world's double standard of only punishing weak countries with no powerful friends, for human rights violations.

Thursday Update: I was right. Haaretz now reports that Bibi's strategy for dealing with the Goldstone Report is to argue that the report hurts the war on terror and the peace process.

Since there is no peace process, and the war on terror died with the Bush administration, that may prove to be a tough sell.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

“The Times They Are A Changin’” I -- Rabbi Asher Lopatin’s One-State Solution

When a young modern orthodox pulpit rabbi in Chicago calls for an unlimited right of return of Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel, and proposes a bi-national Israel-Palestine, conjuring up the ghost of Magnes, you know that "the times, they are a changin'."

Rabbi Asher Lopatin published in June on the moreorthodoxy blog an essay entitled, "What Netanyahu Should Have Proposed." Here are some of his proposals, which he calls, in a nod to Muslim sensibilities, the Five Pillars of the One Democratic State from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.

1)      All citizens – Jews, Muslims, Christians and others – can live anywhere in the land.  Jews will return to live all over Jerusalem – Muslim quarter, Christian quarter, Silwan, City of David – and all over the promised land: in the ancient Israelite cities of Hebron, Bethlehem, and Shechem, and all over Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip.   Just as in America restrictive covenants are illegal, so, too in the One State: Jews and Palestinians can acquire property anywhere in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Gaza, West Bank, etc.  Property rights will be respected, and returning refugees will be accommodated through new housing in or close to their original housing.  All Jewish settlements that are legal by current Israeli law will remain, with compensation where necessary.

2)      New constitution – needing a super-majority to change –  establishing a full democracy, with full separation of church/synagogue/mosque and state, with both a Jewish Bill of Rights and a Palestinian Bill of Rights guaranteeing that the state can be both a Jewish state and a Palestinian state

3)      Law of Return for Jews; Law of Return for Palestinians

4)      The IDF and internal police and security services will stationed everywhere in the One State – there will be no "no go" areas; and these forces will be slowly integrated, at a pace consistent with the security needs of the new state.

5)      Demographic issues will be negotiated with at least three possible solutions: increasing Israel's Jewish population radically by admitting millions of Jewish identifiers from Africa, Asia and South America before the One State is implemented; returning Palestinians based on an equal admission of Jewish identifiers – perhaps limited to a certain time period; allowing for a natural growth of Jewish or Muslim – or other – populations, while the constitution guarantees that the One State remains compatible as a Jewish state as well as a Palestinian state, perhaps guaranteeing a majority representation for a certain number of years.

Rabbi Lopatin goes on to explain some of the initial steps to be taken, mostly confidence-building measures for a one-state solution.

Now Rabbi Lopatin is not the first modern orthodox, or even religious Zionist, Jew to propose a one-state solution. In fact, I know of few religious Zionists who favor two states, certainly not the settlers. Usually the point of their proposals is to ensure that the settlers won't be moved from that part of Eretz Yisrael over the Green Line. The novelty of Rabbi Lopatin's plan is to accord Palestinian refugees the ability to return to areas near their former homes, if they so desire, and to provide for equal rights for the two communities. One may say that in exchange for Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Lopatin is willing to transform the Jewish ethnic state that was founded in 1948 into a secular, binational state. He will have few Jewish allies, but a whole bunch of Palestinian ones.

There are, of course, weird elements in the proposal, like the wholesale conversion of "Jewish identifiers" in order to keep a demographic balance. This is especially weird for an orthodox rabbi, who seems to drop all traditional criteria for conversion just so he can count Jewish heads. What other western democracy grants citizenship automatically after a religious conversion, a kind of "naturalization via circumcision and mikveh"?

"Millions" of unskilled third-world immigrants flooding any society carries grave social consequences. But a deeply racist and tribalist society like Israel could become unhinged. And, anyway, the counting heads business is not only silly but unnecessary, given the proposed constitutional structure.

One also wonders whether the settlers and Israel should be rewarded for illegally settling in the West Bank. Why allow Israel a sixty-year head-start on settlements at the expense of the Palestinians?

But the point of this post is not to examine in detail Rabbi Lopatin's proposal. It is to congratulate him with a great yasher koah for having the courage to think way outside the modern orthodox – nay, the American Jewish -- box.

Once again we have evidence that some of the younger generation, which doesn't have the hang-ups of the Jewish baby-boomer generation that lived through the traumas of 1967 and 1973, recognize that the two-state solution leaves much unsolved, and that it's time to go back to 1948.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Israel vs. Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law

Remember the time when Israel was praised as a beacon of democracy in an undemocratic region, when the world cheered tiny Israel fighting a sea of hostile Arabs? Now that the Goldstone Report has come out – the last in a series of reports criticizing Israel's Gaza Operation -- Israel is supported by all the usual suspects – rightwing Jews, rightwing Israelis (Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres on the moderate nationalist right to hyper-fascists like Ayalon and Lieberman), and, I suppose, Christian evangelicals and some conservative goyyim. Not a single liberal or progressive will rise to Israel's defense, because let's face it – when Israelis, Jews, and the rest of the world rise to criticize the bully's actions, when the person accused by the prime minister of Israel as conducting a "kangaroo court" is one of the most respected judges and scholars of international law (and a Jew and a Zionist to boot), when all the evidence against the Goldstone report is linked to research done by the rightwing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, or the rightwing NGO Monitor (which itself does not do fact-checking but instead a lot of googling to dig up dirt on its opponents), then you know that Israel has already lost.

The real issue is not whether the human rights NGOs or whether the Goldstone Commission made this or that mistake, or relied erroneously on this or that testimony, or had biased members.

No, Israel's battle is not against the human rights NGOs but rather against the whole concept of human rights and international law. If Israel could point to a single human rights NGO that supported Israel's claim, or, for that matter, a single, unbiased expert in international human right law – this rules out strident Israel-apologists such as Irwin Cotler – then its defense would have some credibility. But because this is not possible, Israel's only recourse, after it violates the rights of Palestinians, is to deny that such rights exist.

Now, it Is not self-evident that there are human rights. Philosophers have debated the question. And international law does indeed restrict the unrestrained power of states to as they see fit. That is why conservative legal authorities in the US (and nationalists everywhere) do not like international law. They deem the use of international law against its violators "lawfare". They have no problem when lawfare is used against their enemies. I didn't hear any complaints against Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International in the Israeli media when the published reports critical of Hizbollah and Fatah (except, perhaps, that they were too little, too late.)

When Israel is accused in report after report of gross violations of human rights, and now, war crimes and perhaps crimes against humanity, its knee-jerk reaction is to accuse the organizations of bias, anti-semitism, holding kangaroo court. And this is precisely the response of rogue states like Mugabe's Zimbabwe, or Bashir's Sudan to critical reports by the same human rights NGOs against them.

And why? Because Israel – at least its government –simply doesn't get human rights or just war doctrine. It assumes that it discharges its duty to minimize civilian casualties by dropping leaflets and telling civilians to leave areas. By that reasoning, Hamas could blow up civilians legitimately if they simply warned them (like the IRA) to leave areas where they have planted bombs.

I don't want to minimize the complexity some of the issues. Just war theory, for example, is notoriously tricky when dealing with unlawful combatants. And, as I have written here before, it Is not without its detractors, and not necessarily on the right.

Let me take one example: the bombing of the police graduation that started the Gaza War. A report prepared by the rightwing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs argued that there were not innocent traffic cops but members of militant organizations.

Granted – but so what? Under the Geneva Conventions, one cannot kill even soldiers when they are not engaged in hostile activity, or supporting it. If Hamas were to bomb an IDF graduation ceremony, that would be a violation of military convention. Now, it may be true that this is a protection only extended to regular armies. But from an ethical standpoint there is no difference. Every state sees its own army as just and peaceful and the enemy's army as barbaric and unjust. The point of conventions is to limit military action to the battle-field as much as possible. Even if military forces are located in civilian areas, such as the location of the IDF Kirya in the heart of Tel-Aviv, that does not give carte blanche, to an attacking army to wreak havoc on a civilian population.

In short, can anybody take Israel seriously when the evidence collected by Goldstone, and by NGOs – many of them Israeli -- is so overwhelming that the Gaza Op violated international humanitarian law? To argue otherwise is to accept the testimony of the IDF as infallible and to dismiss the testimony of eyewitnesses – Israeli and Palestinian – as inherently biased.

Israelis congratulate themselves that they did not nuke Gaza. After all, if they really wanted to, they could have killed hundreds of thousands, and not 1,400.

The world doesn't buy it. And Israel's isolation is growing. When an Israel's deputy foreign minister can compare the Goldstone Report to the Zionism = Racism UN, you know that Israel is grasping for straws.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Shalom, Dad

It's been two and a half weeks since my last post. During that period, I was pre-occupied with my father's final days and death, followed by his shiva, the traditional seven-day mourning period. And now I say kaddish in shul/synagogue three times a day. So it has been hard to think of anything else.

I try to keep my personal life and my blogging life separate. But last year I could not resist blogging about my father's support of Obama during the primary battles with Hillary here. Suffering from depression, he was thrilled when Obama took time out from a busy campaign schedule to inscribe for him one of his books, with a message of encouragement. Throughout his illness, until he was too far gone for coherent conversation, Dad asked me how Obama was doing.

How does one explain this 94 year-old's passionate support? My brother summed it up in his eulogy:

Dad, you were not only liberal with your time and energies for your children, grand children and great grandchildren and for the greater communities to which you belonged; you were an old-fashioned Jewish liberal, an FDR or Kennedy liberal. This commitment to liberalism accompanied you throughout your life and has been embraced by your children and grandchildren. The only republicans you ever supported were those you thought were sufficiently liberal. And well into your nineties, while a few members of our family were still supporting Hillary, you jumped onto the Obama bandwagon, having been impressed by Obama's intelligence and core values, and being excited by the prospect of an African-American president. You showed how one can be a loyal and proud member of one's community while at the same time, defending the rights of other communities.

Even now I find it difficult to write about my father, who contributed so much to his family, his community (Jewish and non-Jewish), and to his religion.

Last Shabbat, the haftarah (the portion from the Prophets read weekly in the synagogue) was from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 62. It was the last of the seven "consolation" haftarot that mark the period from Tisha B'Av to Rosh Hashanah. That consolation is the rebuilding of Jerusalem to its former glory. And yet Isaiah does not revel in the restoration of political sovereignty or the building of the Temple, or even the ingathering of exiles. No, this is how he begins…

For Zion's sake I will not hold My peace,

And for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,

Until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,

And her salvation as a lamp that burns.


Until Jerusalem's righteousness, her Zedek, goes forth as brightness, her salvation will not be effected. And until that day, the prophet will not remain silent. Jerusalem will be redeemed not by armies, not by crazies, not by sacrifices, but by justice and righteousness– Ziyyon be-mishpat tipadeh ve-shaveha bi-tzdekah. Zion will be redeemed through justice and its returnees through righteousness. (Isaiah 1.27) Without justice and righteousness Jerusalem is only of historical interest, a quaint little Williamsburg (New York or Virginia, take your pick.) Without justice and righteousness there is nothing Jewish or holy about Jerusalem.

My Dad loved the State of Israel, and during the 1973 war he served as the chairman of the Baltimore Jewish Federation's Israel Emergency Campaign. He supported Israel without being a card-carrying Zionist, and he visited Israel on numerous occasions. But I cannot say that Israel was central to his life the way the pursuit of justice was. It was a question of priorities. Israel's actions against the Palestinians disappointed him and confused him. He never spoke publicly against Israel, but he was disturbed all the same. And he was a fervent believer in pursuing a just peace.

The generation of the old-fashioned Jewish liberal is fading fast. Maybe organizations like J-Street can rekindle the flame for a new generation.

We need such a flame in these dark ages.