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ANALYSIS / U.S. Using Goldstone Report to Punish Netanyahu Print E-mail

By Aluf Benn
Haaretz Correspondent
October 17, 2009

Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was perceived in Israel as a shining victory. Rocket fire from Gaza was brought to a halt almost completely. The Israel Defense Forces emerged from its failure during the Second Lebanon War and deployed ground forces with few casualties. "The world" let the operation continue and did not impose a cease-fire. A wonderful war.

Ten months later, it seems the victory was a Pyrrhic one. Israel did not realize that the rules have changed with Barack Obama's election as U.S. president. Prime minister Ehud Olmert timed Cast Lead to take place during the twilight period between the outgoing and incoming U.S. administrations, and rightly assumed that the incumbent, George W. Bush, would fully back Israel. However, in contrast to the Lebanon war of 2006, which ended with a cease-fire, the Gaza campaign continues being fought - in the diplomatic arena and in public opinion - and Israel must cope with its consequences in a less-friendly Obama era.

During the first, military round, Israel benefited from the decisive superiority of its firepower. However the Palestinians moved the war's current round to an arena more comfortable for them, and are benefiting from their advantage in UN institutions and in public opinion. The calls to boycott Israel are getting louder. Turkey is shirking off its strategic alliance with Israel and is presenting IDF soldiers as horrible murderers of children. Hamas is gradually winning recognition as a legitimate player, as it continues to amass a stock of rockets without hindrance. Meanwhile Israel's leaders are busy defending the country against the United Nations' Goldstone report (that accuses Israel and Hamas of perpetrating war crimes), and some even have to worry now about being the object of arrest warrants in Europe.

Hands are tied

Even if the legal process that Goldstone initiated ends up being halted, and Israel is not put in the dock in The Hague, its hands have been tied. The world, led by Obama, will not let it initiate a Cast Lead II operation. Certainly not when a right-wing government is in power in Jerusalem led by Benjamin Netanyahu, whom the world loves to hate. Netanyahu's clumsy attempt, in his Knesset speech this week, to link the war in Gaza to opposition leader Tzipi Livni did not really succeed. He is in power and the world considers him responsible. The Americans and the Europeans are using the Goldstone report to punish Netanyahu for his refusal to freeze the settlements.

The same thing happened to the Palestinians between the two intifadas. When they hurled stones during the first intifada (1987-1993) and the confrontation was in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, the world cheered them on and forced Israel to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization and to let its leader Yasser Arafat establish his autonomy in the territories. The Palestinian violence at that time was perceived as appropriate resistance to occupation. During the second intifada, the Palestinians resorted to suicide attacks in Israeli cities. They succeeded in killing many more Israelis, but they lost in the diplomatic arena, especially after the September 11 attacks in the United States, when the rules changed. The world was fed up with terror attacks and it allowed then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to reoccupy the West Bank, lock Arafat in a cage (his headquarters in Ramallah) and eventually unload Gaza without a peace arrangement.

Operation Cast Lead was the most planned operation in the annals of Israel's wars. Its organizers filled out all the forms and checked off on all the procedural changes that had been recommended by the Winograd Committee after its investigation of the shortcomings of the Second Lebanon War. The campaign's goals were reasonable. The scenarios were rehearsed. The reservists were trained. Jurists anticipated the legality of every target and operational plan. The soldiers were properly outfitted with food, water and protective equipment. The local authorities in the Israeli rear functioned as they should have. The media obeyed. In short, the government and the IDF prepared exceptionally well for a Third Lebanon War. They only forgot that the conditions on the Palestinian front are different than in Lebanon.

Not everybody shared the euphoria. The defense minister, Ehud Barak, wanted to halt Cast Lead after two or three days, but was overruled by Olmert who wanted to keep the campaign going, and then going further. Columnists and commentators warned of Gaza becoming a quagmire.

And most interesting: The Winograd Committee anticipated the lurking legal danger to Israel, and in its final report had warned of "far-reaching consequences" resulting from the widening gap between the rules of warfare and the reality of fighting terror launched from civilian surroundings. The committee recommended pulling the legal experts out of the operation rooms, increasing and highlighting investigation of irregular activities, and working with friendly countries to amend the rules of warfare, a recommendation that is easy to make but difficult to implement. The Winograd report did not warn against going into the next war before the rules of warfare are changed. The legal recommendations, drafted with restraint out of fear they would be used for anti-Israeli propaganda, were lost in the sea of piquant items in the report.

Upon returning to power, Netanyahu hoped to leave the Palestinian issue on the side and focus on the Iranian threat and on economic reforms. Now his government will have to cope with the consequences of Cast Lead and do so under less than ideal conditions, heavy international pressure and fear of arrest warrants and charge sheets.

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