One of the unintended consequences of the U.N.’s Goldstone report on the Gaza war is that it has made peace in the Middle East less likely, at least at first glance.
The report, which cited evidence of Israeli and Hamas war crimes and was endorsed last Friday by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, has revived a strain of Palestinian thinking that Israel can be defeated by delegitimizing it on the international stage. Palestinians who take this view have less incentive to negotiate with Israel.
The report also has encouraged Palestinian Authority officials, who still claim to be interested in peace talks, to brandish its findings in world forums. That has prompted Israelis to charge that they are poisoning the atmosphere—a charge Israel also leveled against the report, which Israeli officials denounced.
“You can’t badmouth your peace partner at every opportunity and talk peace at the same time,” members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle have been telling the media.
Among Palestinians, the Goldstone report also has exacerbated the rivalry between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas regime in Gaza, with both sides ratcheting up their anti-Israel rhetoric.
Moreover, the bad blood between them over the Palestinian Authority’s handling of the report—the P.A. asked the Human Rights Council to delay endorsing the report so as not to scuttle peace talks, then reversed course after Hamas accused it of treason against the Palestinian people—has led to the deferment of a planned Fatah-Hamas reconciliation its Egyptian brokers hoped would serve the peace process.
What’s worse, after a hiatus of several years, some in Fatah quarters are talking again of a return to armed struggle against Israel.
The Goldstone report, which focused on last winter’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, also has hurt prospects for an Israeli accommodation with Syria. With Israel the subject of international opprobrium, Syria has less incentive to engage.
The report also has cost the Israel-Syria negotiating track a key mediator.
Turkey, enjoying good relations with both sides, had brought Jerusalem and Damascus to within a hair’s breadth of serious peace talks last December. But in the wake of the Goldstone report, Turkey adopted a scathingly anti-Israel stance, leading Netanyahu to rule out Turkey as a future broker.
Indeed, the regional climate has taken a sharp turn for the worse against Israel, complicating any peace moves. If Israel is painted as a war criminal, how can Arab or Muslim states be expected to sit down with it?
Israelis say the Goldstone report is not only a broadside on Israel’s international and regional standing but that it constitutes a body blow to Israeli deterrence. The underlying message is that terrorists can attack Israel and then haul it before international tribunals when Israel hits back.
Israeli analysts argue that the nation’s deterrence is a key factor in maintaining regional stability. Undermining it brings war, not peace.
The Israeli government has drawn two early lessons from the Goldstone experience: That future retaliation against terrorism will have to be short and sharp, over in no more than a few days. (Netanyahu largely blames the duration of the Gaza fighting, 22 days, for the adverse international fallout.) Second, Netanyahu warns that if Israel only has limited rights of self-defense, it won’t take risks for peace.
None of this augurs well for the future.
The Goldstone report seems to have hardened positions on all sides. Many see the Middle East slipping back into old, pre-Oslo patterns of behavior: rhetoric, rejectionism and zero-sum thinking.
Nevertheless, despite the initial negative fallout, positive forces also are at work.
Some inside the Netanyahu government argue that for Israel to dig in and refuse to talk peace with partners that defame it would set off a vicious circle of no peace initiatives and growing international isolation. They contend that the best way to combat the Goldstone report is through a peace initiative showing the international community that Israel under Netanyahu does not reject peace talks.
There is a similar pragmatism on the Palestinian side, where some welcome negotiations with Israel that would reinforce the economic boom in the West Bank and bring Palestinian statehood closer.
Therefore, despite the acerbic rhetoric and the hardening of public positions, behind the scenes Israel and the Palestinians are reportedly close to a formula for a renewal of peace talks.
On the Israeli side it is clear that if there is a political process, international pressure on Israel over the Goldstone report will decrease.
Last week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote a joint letter to Netanyahu in this vein, suggesting that if Israel froze settlement building, entered a peace process and launched its own Gaza probe, the Goldstone report would, to all intents and purposes, be buried.
The ball is now in the American court. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and special U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell are set to talk to President Obama about the state of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating track.
For now, the smart money says that for the sake of peace, Obama will make clear that Israel cannot be delegitimized on the international stage and that its right to self-defense is beyond question—as long as it makes genuine moves for peace.