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The Goldstone Factor

The unintended consequences of the UN's latest indictment of Israel.

The Israeli reactions to the Goldstone report on the Gaza war of January 2009 have focused, understandably, on its outrageous omissions and distortions and one-sided judgments, as well as on the moral corruption of the report's sponsor, the UN's Human Rights Commission. But the far-reaching strategic implications of the Goldstone report require no less urgent consideration.

If a large part of the international community endorses the report's conclusions and opts to put Israel on trial--symbolically or literally--the clear message to Israel will be the rescinding of its right to self-defense against Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are embedded in civilian populations. That will require a basic rethinking of Israel's current strategic policy of containing the terrorist enclaves on its northern and southern borders.

In the decades following the Six Day War, Israeli policy, upheld by successive Labor and Likud governments, was to deny terrorists a foothold along any Israeli border. That was, in part, the rationale behind Moshe Dayan's open bridges policy between Israel and Jordan in the 1970s, as well as Ariel Sharon's West Bank settlement drive and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. When that war soured, so did the appeal of the policy that inspired it. 

Israel's two unilateral withdrawals--from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005--both resulted in the creation of terror enclaves on its borders, negating long-standing strategy. The policy of prevention was replaced by a policy of containment.

That policy of containment was expressed in the 2006 operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and by this year's operation against Hamas in Gaza. In both those mini-wars, Israel opted not to uproot the terrorist enclaves, hoping that the partial flexing of Israeli power would deter further aggression.

The Goldstone report may well mark the end of Israel's limited wars against terrorist groups. Israel cannot afford to continue to be drawn into mini-wars against terrorists hiding behind their own civilians to attack Israeli civilians, given that each such conflict inexorably draws the Jewish state one step closer toward pariah status. Limited victories on the battlefield are being turned into major defeats in the arena of world opinion.

That untenable situation may well leave Israel no choice but to return to the post-1967 policy of preventing altogether the presence of terror enclaves on its borders. Better, Israelis will argue, to deal decisively with the terror threat and brace for temporary international outrage than subject our legitimacy to constant attrition, even as the terrorist threat remains intact. 

Israelis will be keenly watching the pace of Qassam rocket fire from Gaza for signs of an emboldened Hamas. If attacks do intensify--as they have sporadically in recent days--and the quiet achieved by the Gaza offensive is forfeited, the Israeli public will blame the Goldstone report. And Israelis' operative conclusions will likely lead to a less restrained response next time-- the opposite result Judge Richard Goldstone sought to achieve in his apparent attempt to deny Israel the right to self-defense.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. This piece first appeared on the Adelson Institute website.