The United States expressed grave reservations Thursday with the findings and recommendations of a UN report that accused Israel of war crimes during the Gaza conflict and left open the possibility of prosecution at The Hague.
"We have very serious concerns about many recommendations in the report," Ambassador Susan Rice, the permanent US representative to the UN, told reporters following a closed Security Council meeting.
The nearly 600-page report, presented on Tuesday by South African Judge Richard Goldstone, accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, and recommended that if no appropriate independent inquiry takes place in Israel within six months, the Security Council should refer the matter to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.
"We will expect and believe that the appropriate venue for this report to be considered is the Human Rights Council," Rice said on Thursday, in the first official American response to Goldstone's report. "We have long expressed our very serious concern with the mandate that was given by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable."
She also took the opportunity to push for renewed peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The American envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is set to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Friday, and Mitchell has been trying to arrange a meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas during next week's UN General Assembly in New York. So far, a meeting has not been announced.
In a Security Council briefing on Thursday, the UN's Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, said: "The Palestinian government is resolved to complete preparation for statehood in less than two years. I am convinced they can do it, if indeed they haven't already."
Speaking to reporters after the council meeting, Riyad Mansour, the permanent observer of Palestine, said Palestinian officials were not prepared to meet with their counterparts from Israel until it stopped all settlement activity, including natural growth.
"As of this moment, the Israeli side is not meeting its obligations under the road map," Mansour said. "We will not go back to negotiating until Israel meets its obligations."
In Thursday's edition of The New York Times, Goldstone defended against allegations that the findings - or basis - for the UN mission was biased.
"I believe deeply in the rule of law and the laws of war, and the principle that in armed conflict civilians should to the greatest extent possible be protected from harm," he wrote. "In the fighting in Gaza, all sides flouted that fundamental principle."
"Israel must investigate and Hamas is obliged to do the same," Goldstone wrote. "They must examine what happened and appropriately punish any soldier or commander found to have violated the law."
Israeli officials, furious at what they have called a biased mandate, did not participate in the investigation and have rejected its findings. Netanyahu on Thursday reiterated Israel's right to defend itself during television interviews before Rosh Hashana.
"I am telling international leaders: You are telling us that you support our right of self-defense. Don't tell us that after the next agreement, tell us now," Netanyahu told Channel 2. "Reject the findings of this commission."
Asked on Thursday if Palestinian authorities would investigate, Mansour cited a New York Times report quoting Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas adviser in Gaza, who said local authorities would do so. Yousef emphasized his government's position that Gazan rockets were fired in self-defense and that civilians killed in the attacks died because Palestinians only had "primitive weapons."
Asked by a reporter if Mansour meant the PA recognized the authority of Hamas to investigate in Gaza, he repeated, "They are looking into these things."
Several members of Congress issued sharp condemnations of the Goldstone Report, which they said ignored Israel's need to defend itself against terrorism.
"In the self-righteous fantasyland inhabited by the authors, there's no such thing as terrorism, there's no such thing as Hamas, there's no such thing as legitimate self-defense," Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said in a statement. "Certainly, the United States should do all that it can to ensure as little time as possible is wasted on this distraction from the real work of making peace," he said.
In a similar vein, a joint statement by Reps. Shelley Berkley of Nevada and Eliot Engel of New York staunchly defended Israel's right to defend itself against rocket and mortar attacks from the north and the south.
"Israel took every reasonable step to avoid civilian casualties," they wrote. "It is ridiculous to claim that Israel did not take appropriate actions to protect civilian populations."