The Arab spring proves that Israel is not even the biggest issue in the Middle East – yet it gets all the attention
If you want a glimpse of the anger and heartache caused by the Goldstone report into the Gaza conflict of 2008-9, you could do worse than take a trip to the National Theatre. There a new and absorbing play, The Holy Rosenbergs, imagines the rift in a British Jewish family sparked by the daughter’s work as a lawyer for a Goldstone-like inquiry into Israeli conduct in Gaza. It is the eve of her brother’s funeral, and the local rabbi urges her to stay away: if she attends, pro-Israel activists will demonstrate at the cemetery.
If that sounds a stretch, think again. A year ago, Richard Goldstone – the eminent judge who had headed a UN fact-finding mission to Gaza – was told by key players in the South African Jewish community that he should not come to the synagogue where his grandson was due to have his bar mitzvah: if Goldstone showed his face, the 13 year-old’s big day would be disrupted by protests.
In the end, the row was resolved, but that is about the only part of the Goldstone saga that was: the rest remains fiercely contested, for reasons which point to a much larger story than simply the tale of one man and his report.
That particular battle has been reignited by the op-ed piece the judge wrote last week in the Washington Post “reconsidering” his own report and withdrawing what had been his most devastating finding. Goldstone wrote that the latest evidence “indicate[s] that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.
The import of that sentence can hardly be exaggerated. His original suggestion that Israel had been guilty of “wilful killings” of “protected persons” had been received as the most damning indictment possible, an international mark of Cain on Israel’s forehead. Anti-Israel activists had seized on it; many Israel supporters branded Goldstone a traitor, ignoring his own description of himself as a proud Zionist.
Now the two camps are strapping on their rhetorical armour all over again. Israel advocates are savouring the Goldstone semi-retraction as sweet vindication, believing the entire report can now be trashed; Israel’s opponents are looking for those unwithdrawn charges that still have to be answered. One side revels in Goldstone’s bald declaration that “Hamas has done nothing” to follow the report’s key recommendation – which was for both Israel and Hamas to investigate the charges against them. The other notes the gravity of the outstanding claims and the fact that Israel’s own investigations, while numbering 400, have led to all too few prosecutions.
None of this will bring back the more than 700 noncombatants, many of them children, who were killed in Gaza during those appalling winter weeks. Nor will it end the argument chiefly because, as many have noted, Goldstone was never going to be a cool, legal process but a burningly political one. That was baked in from the start, in a way that points to that wider and deeper problem.
For who was it that commissioned Goldstone and his team to look into Gaza? It was the UN Human Rights Council. That sounds like an eminently respectable body – until you look at its record. A 2010 analysis showed that very nearly half of all the resolutions it had passed related to Israel: 32 out of 67. And guess which country is the only one to be under permanent review, on the agenda for every single meeting? Israel. There is only one rapporteur whose mandate never expires. No, it’s not the person charged with probing Belarus, North Korea or Saudi Arabia, despite the hideous human rights records of those nations. It is Israel. The UNHRC, whose predecessor body was once, laughably, chaired by Libya, had originally asked Goldstone to probe just one side of the Gaza war: it was only the judge’s own insistence that he investigate Hamas too that widened his remit. No wonder Goldstone says now of the body he served that its “history of bias against Israel cannot be doubted”.
We can laugh at an organisation so potty it would put a murderous tyrant like Muammar Gaddafi in charge of monitoring human rights around the globe. But in its belief that no country in the world behaves worse or matters more, a belief expressed by the sheer volume of attention it pays to Israel, it reflects a view that is alarmingly widespread.
Many respectable folks have spent decades insisting that the “core issue” in the Middle East, if not the world, is the Israel-Palestine conflict – that it is the “running sore” whose eventual healing will heal the wider region and beyond.
That was always gold-plated nonsense, but now the Arab spring has come along to prove it. Now the world can see that the peoples of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain have troubles aplenty that have nothing to do with Israel. There could be peace between Israelis and Palestinians tomorrow, but it wouldn’t relieve those in Damascus or Manama or Sana’a from the yoke of tyranny. For them, Israel is not “the heart of the matter”, as the cliche always insisted it was. The heart of the matter are the regimes who have oppressed them day in, day out, for 40 years or more.
Yet it is not the suffering of these hundreds of millions of Arabs which has attracted the sympathy of the UN Human Rights Council. Nor has it stirred the compassion of left-leaning liberal types who pride themselves on thei r care for the oppressed. Few places get them excited the way Israel does.
So in 2009 Sri Lanka could kill between 7,000 and 20,000 civilians, displacing 300,000 more in its bombardment of the Tamils at about the same time as the Gaza conflict – but you will search in vain for the Goldstone report into Sri Lankan war crimes. Nor will you find Caryl Churchill writing a play called Seven Sri Lankan Children – asking what exactly is it in the Sri Lankan mentality that allows them to be so brutal.
There is no Goldstone or Churchill to probe the 4 million deaths in the Congo, the slaughtered in Darfur or the murdered in the Ivory Coast, let alone the civilian deaths inflicted by the US and Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one is proposing an academic boycott of those nations or any of the other serial violators of human rights. Tellingly, two members of the four-person board of the LSE’s Middle East Centre are firm advocates of cutting all scholarly ties to Israel – but were only too happy for the college to receive £1.5m from the Gaddafi family.
Many will say that there is indeed a double standard – but it benefits Israel, routinely protected by a US veto at the UN unavailable to those weaker states deemed hostile. That may be true of the most powerful western governments. But when it comes to the academic, cultural and, yes, the media sphere, the bias often works the other way around.
To be clear, this is not to deny that there is a desperately serious problem in Israel-Palestine. There is, and Israelis and Palestinians need it to be solved. I fully understand why Jews and Palestinians regard their conflict as the central issue in the universe. But for the rest of the world to see it that way – the way those who despatched Judge Goldstone saw it – makes no sense at all.