Planned US lawsuit against Goldstone ‘still in early phase'

American Jewish lawyers prepare civil lawsuit for libel; critics call move stupid, a long shot as US grants immunity to UN officials.

By JORDANA HORN IN NEW YORK, RON FRIEDMAN
April 8, 2011 04:26
Judge Richard Goldstone

Judge Richard Goldstone 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

A group of American Jewish lawyers is preparing a civil lawsuit against Richard Goldstone for libel, but when and where it will be filed has yet to be determined.

The proposed class action lawsuit was initiated by Likud MK Danny Danon, as reported by The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. He discussed the idea in conversation with American attorneys during a recent visit to the United States. It would demand that Goldstone publicly apologize to the State of Israel and pay a symbolic amount of damages for the accusations he made in his UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict report.

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Danon’s office issued a statement saying that the suit is set to be filed in federal district court in New York next week by attorney Steve Goldberg.

Goldberg, however, reached on Thursday by the Post, said that although he wants to work as quickly as possible on the case, issues of proper venue as well as other questions have yet to be determined.

Goldberg said that his goal, along with the other 11 lawyers working with him on the case, is to proceed quickly, but that the Goldstone Report itself reflects what can go wrong when there is a “rush to judgment.”

Characterizing the suit as “still in its early phases,” Goldberg said he and his fellow attorneys were trying to determine the best venue in which to file the suit, as well as whether Goldstone and other parties named would be more likely to submit to one tribunal as opposed to another – even though Goldberg believes Goldstone and other parties “should be willing to defend their accusations” in any forum.

“Unlike Goldstone, I don’t believe in making false accusations in a hurry, and think this has to be done carefully,” Goldberg said. “We have to pick precisely the right jurisdictions. I expect a host of technical defenses will be raised. Our goal is to do it quickly, but I want to make sure everything is done exactly right.”

A trial would be “very interesting,” Goldberg said, especially questioning Goldstone and “get[ting] to the point where he has to answer questions about his methodologies and conclusions, and the inconsistencies of the standards that were applied.

“The people who are responsible for propagating a falsehood should be subject to cross-examination and have to answer for their allegations,” Goldberg said. “The libel [of the Goldstone Report] was promulgated worldwide, and Goldstone talked about his report in the US, so it’s a place where there is damage. The question is where is this suit most likely to avoid some of the technical jurisdictional defenses.”

Danon said he planned to file a similar lawsuit in Israel that would go into effect if Goldstone visited the Jewish state. Goldstone has said he will visit Israel in July at the invitation of Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

Many Israeli organizations and officials, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, have called on the United Nations to cancel the Goldstone Report in the wake of a Washington Post op-ed in which Goldstone retracted some positions.

The Goldstone Report, Goldberg said, “has caused extraordinary damage and it is a libel comparable to the blood libel.

This is a tort that is recognizable in most civil courts in Western countries. And if you’re going to make accusations that people committed war crimes, then you should be prepared to defend those accusations.”

Prof. Guy Harpaz, an expert in international law from the Hebrew University, called any attempt to sue Goldstone for libel in the US both stupid and a long shot. Harpaz said that many countries, including the US, grant extensive immunity to UN officials. Though this immunity was not complete, Harpaz said, it would likely be sufficient to protect Goldstone from being sued.

Harpaz said a suit would likely do more harm than good for Israel, serving only to strengthen its delegitimization.

“Launching a personal campaign against a man of Goldstone’s stature will only increase resistance to the Israeli cause. The inconsistent treatment of Goldstone – one moment he is treated as a villain, the next he is lauded as a redeemer and the next he’s being sued for libel – is not serious on a tactical level. On a legal level we must remember that despite the report’s name, it is not his personal report and it is doubtful he can be personally sued for the report’s content,” Harpaz said.

He added that while generally speaking, libel could only be committed against a person or an identifiable collective, in some jurisdictions it is possible to sue over perceived libel to a country.

David Schoen is a US attorney who has filed a currently pending suit against former president Jimmy Carter alleging that Carter’s 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid contains false information and was intended to deceive the public and promote an anti- Israel agenda.

Schoen said that while no one has read any case papers or memoranda of law at present, it would certainly be interesting to do so.

“It is impossible for anyone to evaluate the viability of such a case with anything other than a knee-jerk reaction without seeing the complaint and understanding the theory of the case,” he said. “It would be terrific if there were a forum in which the substance and methodology of the Goldstone Report could get a full and fair airing. It is clear that the UN and the Human Rights Council that authorized it are incapable of providing such a forum.

“As an aside, I certainly think a lawsuit is a more appropriate response to Goldstone’s ‘recantation’ than Eli Yishai’s invitation and fawning over Goldstone,” Schoen added.

Washington attorney Evan Schultz, who has written on Israeli affairs as well as the concept of group libel, said he found it hard to take even the theoretical notion of such a suit seriously.

“If this were actually a serious suit, they wouldn’t be suing in New York – they’d be suing in London, where there are much easier libel laws,” Schultz said. “They don’t want to make a legal case here – they want to make a media case, to American Jews.”

When he heard about the suit, Schultz said, his reaction was: “You want to sue a UN agency for libel? Really? But I suspect that that won’t matter, because they’re not filing for legal reasons.”

Goldberg agreed that there certainly would be high media value to a trial of this sort.

“The point of this is to get to the truth and make it publicly known,” he said. “To some extent, there would be some truth to the allegation that this is for the sake of public awareness – but a suit and trial would be done according to proper legal standards, with the opportunity to ask questions and answer questions and get to the truth in front of fair finders of fact.

“The idea now is to get the truth disseminated as quickly and as widely as the lies were,” Goldberg said.


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