Too often lately it seems taking a position on Israel means choosing between extremes. Right or Left. Zionist or anti-Zionist. For us or against us. Yeats’ grim warning — “the centre cannot hold” — has morphed from profundity to cliche.
That pattern had held in the reactions to Richard Goldstone’s semi-retraction of his damning UN report on the Gaza war. For some, perhaps the majority of Jewish officials, Goldstone’s acknowledgement that he had no proof that Israel was deliberately targeting civilians amounts to a complete exoneration.
“Israel never targets civilians as a matter of policy,” writes World Jewish Congress leader Ronald Lauder. “It is not that kind of country. It is a humane, liberal-democracy. It is governed by the rule of law. It is a normal Western country whose people, and soldiers, abide by normal Western values.”
For some on the Jewish Left, Goldstone’s recantation does nothing to change their opinion that Operation Cast Lead was an unjustified and unnecessarily brutal war.
“The bottom line is that Goldstone’s edit doesn’t matter except to those who defended and still defend this indefensible war,” writes former AIPAC staffer M.J. Rosenberg, who has become one of Israel’s most persistent critics. “The damage done to Israel’s reputation…is insignificant compared to the pain felt by all those still mourning loved ones killed in the monstrous and illegal Gaza war.”
Jewish outrage over the Goldstone Report and its effects is real and justified. In charging Israel with war crimes without evidence, the report lit a fire under efforts to delegitimize Israel and undermine its moral standing, while whitewashing Hamas and masking its murderous intent. Even leftists who embraced the report will come to regret it, when they admit the damage it’s done to the prospects for peace. The report made Israelis feel ever more isolated, while it discredited their ability to defend themselves from indiscriminate rocket fire — exactly what you’d hope for if your goal was to cripple the constituency for compromise.
And yet we do Israel no favors if we pretend its leaders are perfect or its military above scrutiny. Israel certainly doesn’t; internal investigations launched in the wake of the Gaza war attest to that. Another casualty of the Goldstone Report is honest discussion of the risks and dilemmas of asymmetrical warfare. “By raising a completely false accusation,” Moshe Halbertal told The New York Times, Goldstone “masked in some ways the real complex issues of such a struggle.”
Halbertal, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University, is one of Israel’s most important voices on morality and warfare, having helped to draft the army’s ethics code. An Orthodox Jew and self-described member of the Left, he personally straddles the debates that so divide Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
That’s why it is important to go back to his 2009 essay in The New Republic, “The Goldstone Illusion.” He calls the Goldstone Report a “terrible document,” its claims that Israel intentionally targeted civilians “false and slanderous.” He demonstrates how the commission, by expanding its mandate to include a one-sided history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, prepared a “general indictment of Israel as a predatory state that is geared toward violating human rights all the time.” And he wonders why a 500-page report on the Israel-Hamas war makes no mention of Hamas’ terror campaign against Israel.
But Halbertal also shows how the report, in a rush to condemn Israel, ignored the essential question facing today’s military, from the alleys of Gaza to the outskirts of Benghazi: “What sorts of risks must a soldier assume in order to avoid killing civilians while targeting a seeming combatant?”
For the Radical Left, there is no justifiable way of waging a war in which civilians will die. For the Radical Right, the responsibility for protecting civilians falls exclusively on the Palestinians.
Halbertal rejects both views. While it is absolutely wrong to intentionally target noncombatants, it is just to wage war in which the killing of noncombatants is foreseeable. The question is proportionality. The IDF’s code demands that soldiers “do their utmost to avoid the harming of civilians.” But when Hamas shoots a mortar from a crowded neighborhood, how many civilian deaths are “acceptable” in the effort to thwart him? Halbertal calculates that for every two Hamas fighters or police killed in the operation, three civilians died (compare to ratios of 1:10 or 1:20 during NATO’s war in Afghanistan).
That the Goldstone Report never defines justified proportionality is another indication that its authors preferred to pillory Israel rather than arrive at a deeper understanding of the conflict.
Whether you are on the Right or Left, Halbertal’s essay is challenging. He urges Israel to investigate the report’s allegations that its troops employed human shields, willfully destroyed civilian property, and, in some cases, murdered civilians in cold blood.
He also, unequivocally, defends Israel’s right to defend itself, calling those who think otherwise “politically foolish and morally problematic.”
But even in condemning the report, Halbertal doesn’t want Israel to ignore it. He urges Israel to clarify “the principles that it operated upon in Gaza, thus exposing the limits and prejudices of the report.” Whether that will change the minds of a biased world, Halbertal doesn’t say. It’s up to Israel, he writes, to set “the proper moral limits that have to be met while legitimately securing its citizens.”