While everyone else is welcoming the hopeful signs from the nuclear negotiations with Iran -- and I'm cautiously encouraged too --I'm going back to the less-than-hopeful news from elsewhere in the Middle East. According to the Associated Press, the Palestinian National Authority has agreed to defer its efforts to get the Goldstone Report on war crimes in the Gaza conflict referred out of the U.N. Human Rights Commission to the Security Council or the General Assembly. This seems puzzling: given the findings of the report, and the fact that roughly 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the carnage (along with 13 Israelis), why would they decide to hold back? Simple: because the United States, principled defender of human rights, put a lot of pressure on them. Here's the Associated Press's explanation (my emphasis):
Senior U.S. and Palestinian officials in Washington and Ramallah, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Palestinian decision came after heavy U.S. pressure and a warning that going ahead with the resolution would harm the Middle East peace process."
A few comments. First, critics of the report -- including, unfortunately, senior officials in the United States government -- have repeatedly charged that the U.N. Human Rights Commission is biased against Israel and that the original charge given to Goldstone was slanted. I think there's merit to both charges, but they are also irrelevant to judging the report itself or determining how it should be handled. Why? Because Goldstone demanded that the original charge be modified to cover both sides' conduct before he accepted the job, and his demand was accepted by the UNHCR. The fact that the UNHCR has been overly concerned with Israel in the past is regrettable, but says nothing about the validity of the report itself. UNHCR didn't do the investigation and write the report; a distinguished international panel with impeccable credentials did. And other respected human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, have endorsed the report's recommendations too.
Second, although the report contains damning evidence that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes, its main recommendation is that the Security Council require each side to carry out credible investigations of their own conduct and take appropriate action against those responsible for any crimes that were committed. If the responsible parties do this, there is no danger of a subsequent referral to the International Criminal Court, because the Court only has jurisdiction when responsible authorities refuse to investigate in a credible manner.
The United States is reportedly encouraging Israel to conduct a thorough and fair-minded investigation, as are Israeli human rights organizations like B'tselem. And it should be noted that Israel has done so effectively on certain occasions in the past, such as the Kahan Commission that investigated the Sabra and Shatila massacres during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. So in theory, Israel can avoid any call for sanction against specific individuals by doing a serious investigation of its own, provided that it doesn't just whitewash the whole business. (The same logic applies to Hamas, of course, and such a step would in fact be a very interesting move on their part. But I doubt they will.)
Third, it is more than a little ironic to see how the "peace process" (and by extension, the occupation itself) has become a reason to deep-six a report documenting human rights violations. (Never mind that the occupation is itself a violation of human rights and international law). Once again, U.S. policy inadvertently encourages Israeli intransigence: by driving a hard bargain with us on settlements and other key issues, the Israeli government gets its American patron to offer it more and more help (this time in the form of diplomatic cover) just to keep the illusion of a two-state settlement alive. Indeed, the obvious response to the U.S. argument that it has to suppress the Goldstone Report in order to protect the "peace process" is simple: what peace process?
Meanwhile, the stakes for the United States and President Obama just went up a little further. He laid down some big markers in his Cairo speech -- openly committing himself to "two states for two peoples" and declaring that "the settlements must stop" -- only to back down a few months later. Now he's apparently pressured the Palestinian Authority to put the Goldstone Report on the back burner, so as not to harm the "peace process." Well, ok, but he'd better produce something tangible for this latest Palestinian concession. If another six months goes by and there's no meaningful progress toward a two-state solution, then Abbas will look even more ineffectual, Hamas's hard-line approach will gain more adherents, and Obama's big push for Middle East peace will be seen as no different than the patently insincere "peace initiative" that President Bush began at Annapolis in 2007. We will be headed for a one-state solution -- if that is not already inevitable -- and that means big trouble for everyone. And that beautiful speech in Cairo will sound like yet another case of American double-talk.
SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.