Goldstone, Israel’s Frankenstein

I put off reading the Goldstone report the same way I put off scheduling a colonoscopy. I now realize it was for many of the same reasons. You know it’s going to be tremendously uncomfortable, you don’t want to know what they’re going to find, and the consequences could be life-threatening. I know that I am not alone. Despite the many people who have made strident declarations about the report, few have actually read it, end to end.

It’s a tough slog, the hundreds of pages of the UN-sponsored report on allegations of war crimes in Gaza. The material is infuriating at times, the content inconsistent, the methodology slapdash. But for anyone who cares about the future of this place, and for anyone who has paid close attention to the hyperbole and factual errors of Israeli leaders in condemning it, the read is more than worthwhile – if only for the key element of its surprise ending: A marked degree of fairness.

It does not question the right of Israel – or, for that matter, the Palestinians – to self-defense, but it accuses both sides of having resorted to war crimes in the course of, or in the name of, defending themselves. The inquiry breaks new ground for the UN, and breaks sharply from its original mandate, in addressing Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians.

From the start, Israel’s responses have been that of the brilliant blockhead – the lawyer so in love with his own case that he persuades no one. And everything that Israel has done in its own defense, has made its situation worse.

You know the Golem story. It opens with political pressures and popular frustration, channeled and fueled by frankly anti-Semitic clerics and their disciples under arms, all backed by a regional power interested in stirring up local trouble to consolidate and expand its own restive, second-rate empire. The result: attacks and threats of mass-murder against the Jews.

You know the response as well: A leader of the Jews, well-versed in tradition and tragedy, creates and puts into operation a monster to save his people. After apparent initial success, the leader discovers that the monster can be neither controlled, deactivated, nor dismantled. Its actions, taken the name of self-defense, have put the Jews, once again, in danger.

In retrospect, the Golem story was much more than Jewry’s 16th century precursor to Frankenstein, the well-intentioned living construction which ultimately turns on its creator, who is a man too smart by far for his own good. It also turns out to have been the blueprint for Israeli history and policy from its very inception.

The direct outcome of success in facing the apparent prospect of wholesale slaughter of Jews in 1948 has stalked Israel ever since, in the ever-swelling form of the Palestinians’ own version of the Golem, the Naqba. The direct outcome of success in averting the apparent prospect of wholesale murder of Jews in 1967 was the grand Golem of the occupation. The direct outcome of success in grooming Islamic fundamentalist charities and prayer groups to counter ostensibly Marxist Palestinian armed groups in Gaza in the 70s and 80s, was the creation in 1987 of the Islamic Resistance Movement – for short, Hamas.

And now, as an outgrowth of all of these, and of Israel’s war in Gaza and its handling of the fallout of that war, comes a dark new threat, amorphous, which with nothing more than a long shadow has struck terror into the most powerful men in Israel – many of whose decisions were instrumental in building it into what it is today, the monster whom Israel has come to know and dread by the name of Goldstone.

Like all contemporary versions of the Frankenstein story, this one has a twist. And like all version of the Golem story, the Jews have the best of intentions, no clue about the worst-case scenario, and an uncanny ability to make that scenario come to life.

What was Israel’s role here? It began long before the creature began to take form, and long, long before it took its first tentative steps.

It was rooted in the belief that the only way to counter and deter Hamas, and, optimally, bring about its downfall, was a show of force of devastating proportion. It was rooted in the belief that after the poorly planned, poorly managed debacle of the Second Lebanon War, and 12,000 rockets and mortar shells pumped into the Negev from Gaza over eight years, an angry Israeli public, feeling abandoned by the world and inconsequential to their own leaders, would tolerate only a minute number of IDF casualties when war came, even if that meant a nearly unlimited number of Palestinian civilian losses.

It was also rooted in the belief – oddly un-Israeli, more an outgrowth of the Polish shtetl than the Palmach – that a fair hearing for Israel in international bodies of justice was so inconceivable, that the best defense was no defense at all.

Israel’s decision not to cooperate with the Goldstone Mission, and, in many respects, to actively hamper its work, was calamitous. In revealing correspondence pointedly repreoduced in the report, Justice Goldstone all but gets down on hands and knees to beg Israel to allow it to balance the report with on-site visits to rocket-torn Sderot, extensive direct testimony from victims of Qassam attacks, and first-person accounts and explanations of soldiers accused of violations of international law. Israel says no. Benjamin Netanyahu won’t even go so far as to answer Goldstone’s letter.

Now the report is out, alive and ticking, and Israel – in its desperation to deflect the monster, no matter the consequences, has already managed to hand it as a stick to Hamas, to beat and perhaps eventually defeat Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Palestinian Authority.

Produced under unrealistic constraints of time and evidence, the report is easy to critique but impossible to ignore. Befitting its subject matter, it is zealous, suspicious, and bleak, asking tough questions which both sides should long ago have asked themselves.

The bottom line, for Israelis, is simply this: Israel desperately needs a respected commission of inquiry of its own, to probe precisely the charges leveled by the Goldstone Mission. Israel owes its own citizens no less. It needs this, first and foremost, for the sake of its own future, and for the moral standards that it has explicitly set for itself. In fact, this is what Justice Goldstone is recommending that Israel do, specifically to avoid a summons to the Hague.

Then again, this government is led by Benjamin Netanyahu of MIT and Ehud Barak of Stanford, two men who may still be too blinded by their own brilliance to be able to see how blind they have become. Their temptation now will be to choose the risk of sacrificing their country’s best long-term interests over the risk of being proven wrong. And, if current indications hold, both options may well come to pass.

Now I’ll have to schedule that colonoscopy.