Adel Safty
Gulf News
October 19, 2009 - 12:00am

The Goldstone Commission's report about the Gaza war, which was published by the UN last month, has generated intense debates about how to handle its findings and its recommendations, both in the corridors of the United Nations and beyond.

The report found that Israel and Palestinian fighters had committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. It recommended that both Israel and the Palestinian National Authority conduct independent investigations of the charges and that in case of failure to comply with the recommendation, the UN Security Council should refer the report to the UN Permanent Criminal Court for possible prosecution for war crimes. Last Friday, the UN Human Rights Council had endorsed the report, clearing the way for it to go to the Security Council.

Israel, which had refused to co-operate with the Goldstone Commission and refused its members entry into Gaza (they eventually entered Gaza through the border with Egypt), condemned the report and tried to discredit Goldstone, himself- a respected Jewish South African judge who served as the UN chief prosecutor for the UN Rwanda Tribunal.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas endorsed the report and called on the UN Human Rights Council to schedule an immediate vote on the report. A few days later Abbas retracted his decision and instructed his envoy to Geneva to accept a postponement of the vote.

Following intense criticism from Palestinian rival factions, Abbas changed his mind again and withdrew the retraction.

Last week UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that he supported the Palestinian proposal to reopen debate on the Goldstone Commission's report.

Israel's reaction to the Goldstone Commission's report was to be expected, after all Israel had rejected the very terms of reference of the commission and refused to cooperate with the investigation.

But the way Abbas handled the situation, critics said, has discredited him; some Palestinian rivals even called for his resignation.

There are several reasons behind the vacillation that characterised the Palestinian reaction. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that an Israeli source told the paper that the Obama administration told the Palestinians that reviving the peace process must take priority over UN initiatives based on the Goldstone report.

There is also the threat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly made that anti-Israeli actions at the UN or referral to the Criminal Court would mean the end of the peace process.

There is every reason to take the threat seriously. Netanyahu is anxious to find an excuse to absolve himself of responsibility for the failure to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians, while he continues to defy Obama's demand for an end to all construction of colonies.

Furthermore, it is not clear what could be achieved by pushing for another and immediate condemnation of Israel and its actions. The Goldstone report is already an unprecedented condemnation of Israeli actions.

But for Israeli leaders and officers to be tried by the International Criminal Court, the UN Security Council must refer the matter to the Court. And this Washington would most probably not allow. So Abbas' insistence in securing yet another condemnation of Israel would not guarantee formal accountability.

The request for deferral was also endorsed by supporters of the Palestinian cause from The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the African group, and the Non-Aligned Movement.

Abbas' decision to drop his demand for an immediate vote provoked intense criticism from many disgruntled Palestinians. Even the Palestinian government of Salam Fayyad issued a statement critical of Abbas' decision: "we mustn't give up the opportunity," the statement said, "to go after those who committed war crimes during Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip."

Abbas gave in to the mounting pressure and again did an about-face, instructing the Palestinian ambassador to Geneva to press for an immediate vote on the Goldstone report.

In so doing, he sought to preserve his wavering political base and prevent Hamas from capitalising on the disenchantment of the Palestinians who opposed the decision to postpone the vote.

The latest about-face from Abbas is an ill-advised decision: It is not likely to bring about the accountability that his critics want to see. And it is not likely to strengthen the position of those in Israel who want to see an end to the construction of colonies and a restart of the peace process.

At the same time Abbas placed himself in the vulnerable position of being open to criticisms of ineptitude and vacillation while giving Netanyahu an excuse to further delay the start of negotiating the core issues of the conflict.

While only a few weeks ago Netanyahu stood as the odd man out defying Obama and the international community and erecting obstacles to peace, Abbas has now changed that equation by placing himself in conflict with Washington and handing Netanyahu a pretext to continue to torpedo American efforts at starting the final status negotiations.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017