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Israelis, Palestinians have chance to move toward peace

By Michael Wolraich, Special to CNN
  • Michael Wolraich says Richard Goldstone changed mind on his UN report on Gaza war
  • He says new findings showed Israel didn't target civilians, but still evidence that Hamas did
  • Israel has said Goldstone report damaged reputation; Wolraich says little evidence of that
  • Wolraich: Instead of retrenching, both sides should set aside report, move toward peace

Editor's note: Michael Wolraich is a founder of the political blog and the author of "Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual."

(CNN) -- Israel supporters rejoiced on Friday after international jurist Richard Goldstone recanted some conclusions from his investigation into Israel's military actions during the Gaza war two years ago.

"If I had known then what I know now," Goldstone wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, "The Goldstone Report would have been a different document."

The 2009 United Nations-backed investigation accused the Israeli military and Palestinian militants of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity for deliberately attacking civilians. Goldstone has now acknowledged that Israel's military did not intentionally target civilians as a matter of policy -- in contrast with Hamas, whose rockets "were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets."

In his op-ed he cited a report prepared after the Goldstone report by a UN committee of independent experts, which found Israel investigated more than 400 allegations of misconduct, and he lamented that Israel's lack of cooperation in his own report had led to his earlier findings. He said Hamas has "not conducted any investigations into the launching of rocket and mortar attacks against Israel."

The Israeli government and its supporters have long denounced the Goldstone Report as deeply flawed and complain that it has tarnished Israel's reputation. On Sunday, in fact, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans "to reverse and minimize the great damage that has been done by this campaign of denigration against the state of Israel."

But while Israel's supporters and detractors alike often take the importance of the Goldstone Report for granted, it's worth considering the extent of the "great damage" done to the state of Israel since the report was released and questioning what such investigations, accusations and condemnations actually accomplish.

For instance, did the Goldstone Report diminish the United States' support for Israel? When Gallup asked Americans in 2009 whether they sympathized more with Israelis or Palestinians, 59% answered Israelis and 18% answered Palestinians.

When Gallup repeated the poll in 2010, after Goldstone released his report, the results suggested Israel's reputation among Americans was not all that tarnished. Sixty-three percent now sympathized with the Israelis, and 15% sympathized with the Palestinians.

Of course, Israel is far less popular in other places in the world. A global opinion poll by the BBC did show a slight drop in sympathy for Israel after the Goldstone Report, but the difference was within the margin of error. In early 2009, 21% of respondents held a positive view of Israel's influence, and 51% held a negative view. A year later, 19% held a positive view, and 50% held a negative view.

But let's suppose that despite the lack of evidence, the Goldstone Report did significantly tarnish Israel's international reputation. What was the consequence?

Author of Israel-Hamas report would reconsider findings

Israel supporters often cite the boycotts against Israel as evidence of the injury produced by the Goldstone Report. And indeed, Britain's Trade Union Congress announced a boycott of Israeli goods within days after the report was issued. But British unions, which have been critical of Israel since the 1980s, first began calling for boycotts in 2007 and they continue to call for them every few months at any provocation. A steady stream of European boycotts against Israel for years suggests Israel's public relations difficulties in Europe go well beyond the Goldstone Report.

More significantly, neither the boycotts nor the Goldstone Report appear to have brought the Israeli government or the Palestinian leadership any closer to making peace.

Many Israelis take pride in defying critical world opinion. After the Goldstone Report was released, Netanyahu angrily denounced its conclusions and vowed never to permit Israeli soldiers to appear before the International Criminal Court. He was rewarded by a bounce in the polls for his conservative Likud party and other right-wing parties in his coalition.

While Israeli hard-liners capitalized on Goldstone's report by denouncing it, Hamas enthusiastically exploited it for propaganda purposes, embracing the findings even though the report had also accused Hamas militants of war crimes. The following year, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal even called for a second Goldstone Report, proclaiming, "We want Barak, Netanyahu and all the Zionist leaders to be tried as war criminals."

In short, the most significant effect of the Goldstone Report was to strengthen the hard-liners on both sides. In the end, it amounted to nothing more than the latest pointless episode in a decades-long game of political scorekeeping to prove once and for all who is worse, the Israeli government or Palestinian organizations like Hamas.

Yet despite repeated UN condemnations over the years and thousands of articles by concerned supporters on one side or the other, global perceptions of the conflict have changed little.

More importantly, these debates have failed to move the parties any closer to resolution. To the contrary, they have intensified the animosities that prevent Israelis and Palestinians from trusting one another in the first place. The antagonists simply add the latest accusations and condemnations to their arsenals of grievances, and everyone carries on as before.

There is a better way.

In a timely announcement, a group of prominent Israelis, including former heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel's intelligence and security services, have this week unveiled a peace proposal that calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza strip and a return of most of the Arab land occupied by Israel. Labeled the Israeli Peace Initiative, the proposal is a direct response to the Arab Peace Initiative issued by the Arab League in 2002 and 2007.

Neither the Israeli nor the Arab peace initiative speaks of atrocities or hurls accusations. Neither attempts to defend anyone's reputation. The Israeli initiative even makes a point of recognizing the suffering of Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel's war of independence.

Unlike the Goldstone Report and the angry denunciations of it, the new Israeli initiative is positive and forward-looking, designed to support conciliators instead of hard-liners. In the words of Danny Yatom, a signer of the Israeli initiative and former head of Mossad, "We want to signal to moderate Palestinians and Syrians that there is a new horizon and light at the end of the tunnel."

The proposal is only a beginning, but it demonstrates how we might take advantage of Goldstone's change of heart to move beyond the interminable debate over who has been good and who has been bad. Instead of yet another excuse to lash out, the new peace initiative offers Israelis and Palestinians a rare opportunity to move forward.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Wolraich.