In an extraordinary reversal published late last Friday in the Washington Post, Justice Richard Goldstone, without quite admitting it, effectively renounced core findings of the influential Goldstone Report: an investigation by the U.N. Human Rights Council into alleged Israeli and Hamas war crimes in Gaza in 2008–9, which overwhelmingly focused on Israel. Goldstone’s repudiation of key elements of the United Nations report issued in his name undercuts efforts by Israel’s critics to invoke the authority of the U.N. and an internationally recognized Jewish jurist to paint Israel as a “terrorist state.”
In his analysis of Goldstone’s stunning reversal, Ron Radosh suggests that the judge may have been influenced by the work of Peter Berkowitiz, a prominent critic of the Goldstone Report. (You can find Berkowitz’s key critiques of the Goldstone Report here, here, and here.) I suspect Radosh is right. Berkowitz is an old colleague and friend, so I happen to know that Goldstone, who is a visiting professor at Stanford Law School, and Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, participated in two public debates over the Goldstone Report at Stanford University this year. (Here’s a news report on the January 2011 event.) The second debate took place a week ago at Stanford Law School, just days before Goldstone’s public reversal.
Curious about this, I contacted Berkowitz, who is currently in residence at Stanford, to ask him what he made of Goldstone’s recantation, and what role, if any, he thought his public debates with Goldstone may have played in the reversal.
Berkowitz was diffident about any part he might have personally played in Goldstone’s change of heart. When I pressed him about what actually happened at the debates, however, Berkowitz told me that at both events he had read aloud the infamous paragraph 1690, containing the most explosive and damaging charges made by the Goldstone Report against Israel (in fact Berkowitz read paragraph 1690 aloud twice at Monday’s debate):
“[Israel undertook] a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”
Then Berkowitz showed that the accusations contained in 1690 were groundless. Implicitly, Goldstone’s Friday opinion piece retracts the charges contained in 1690.
It appears that Goldstone had not spoken publicly on his controversial report for ten months prior to the first of his Stanford debates. While it’s impossible to know for certain, it’s hard not to suspect that Goldstone’s two recent encounters with Berkowitz played a role in his transformation.
It’s also important to note that the Goldstone Report’s (false) charges against Israel have taken on particular importance in light of the war in Libya. Our military action in Libya is based on the new (and justly controversial) doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Under R2P, if a country fails to protect citizens under its power, a “humanitarian” military intervention is justified. Samantha Power, one of the architects of the Obama administration’s Libya policy, is an enthusiastic advocate of R2P. Power is also notorious for having advocated American military action against Israel, the purpose of which would have been to impose a “solution” to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
The now repudiated findings of the Goldstone Report could potentially have been combined with a robust R2P doctrine to justify international military action against Israel. For now, Goldstone’s reversal helps remove this sword from above Israel’s head. Yet as the doctrine of R2P is further entrenched by progressives eager to press international law into the service of partisan ends, expect future human rights accusations and associated calls for multilateral military action against Israel. That is the dangerous ground the Obama administration is laying, whether intentionally or not, through its appeals to the United Nations and international law.