Israel should open an independent commission of inquiry into Operation Cast Lead, not as a response to the UN’s Goldstone Report on last winter’s Gaza offensive, but as a means of taking back the narrative and engaging the international community, former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler said during a panel discussion at the capital’s Begin Heritage Center on Wednesday evening.
The panel, which covered the topic of fighting false legal actions and boycotts that demonize Israel, was sponsored by the Hadar-Israel Council for Civic Action, in collaboration with Europeans for Israel, and moderated by The Jerusalem Post’s David Horovitz.
The panel’s speakers also included Lt.-Col. (res.) David Benjamin, a former director of the international division of the IDF Military Advocate-General Corps and legal adviser for the Southern Command in Gaza, and D.J. Schneeweiss, the anti-boycott coordinator for Europe at the Foreign Ministry.
Cotler, who made the remarks in response to a question, elucidated his stance in a conversation with the Post
“My main point is that Israel should [create an independent commission of inquiry], not only because it has nothing to hide, but because I think Israel has something to contribute by engaging with the international community,” he said.
“It shouldn’t be seen as a response to the Goldstone Commission, but rather as part of a four-fold approach that would allow Israel to, first of all, share with the international community the extensive investigative approaches it has already undertaken, along with the legal framework that exists in Israel. This includes the oversight of the attorney-general, the review role of the Supreme Court, etc. – none of which is very well known and all of which competes well with parallel structures in other democracies,” Cotler explained.
“The second thing [such an inquiry could do] is present a critique of the UN Human Rights Council, which was the origin of the whole corrupted process here,” he went on, referring to the Goldstone Commission and its subsequent report. “And not simply to critique, but along my theme of engaging, make recommendations as to how to improve the UN Human Rights Council for due rights process, which could make a contribution to things that the international community really cares about.”
The third objective such a commission could accomplish, Cotler said, would be to “join issue with the Goldstone Report’s findings in both facts and law, which in my opinion is weak on both. It could provide that kind of rebuttal.”
Finally, Cotler said the creation of such a commission could allow Israel to share with the international community its experiences and dilemmas as a democracy that, more than any other, was the target of international terrorism.
“My approach to this should be seen as a means of engaging with the international community rather than withdrawing from it,” he stressed.
“Additionally, the Goldstone Report is not going away,” Cotler said. “I can identify between eight and 10 initiatives [in the UN] that are being established in the wake of the report.”
However, “if Israel were to go ahead with such a panel, it would clearly remove any justification with respect to these sets of initiatives, because there is no place for international review and oversight by agencies of the international community [once an independent commission is established by a democracy],” he continued.
“In that sense, it would act as a prevention. It would put Israel in a situation where it is engaging the international community, rather than being seen as the defendant in the international arena. You don’t put a democracy in the dock when that democracy has undertaken its own processes to deal with these matters,” he asserted.
Cotler added that such a body should be headed by “a distinguished former Supreme Court judge, such as former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar.”
Shamgar “is an example of someone who brings the added advantage of having also been a judge advocate [general],” Cotler said. “He has a repository of experience and expertise in matters of this kind and is respected internationally. This is also true of [former attorney-general and Supreme Court president] Aharon Barak, and I would think that a former minister and distinguished human rights lawyer such as Amnon Rubinstein could make a contribution. Those are the kinds of people I could imagine – of course, it’s Israel’s choice to determine.”
While the panel discussion had a significant focus on the Goldstone Report and its ramifications, Benjamin gave firsthand insights into the IDF’s methods of adhering to international law during armed conflicts, and echoed Cotler’s statements regarding the country’s extensive legal framework.
“We have the highest level of judicial oversight in the military,” Benjamin said. “And we also have one of the most activist Supreme Courts. There’s no way a US court would hear a case from an Iraqi national regarding US operations in Iraq, just as there’s no way a British court would hear a case from an Afghan national regarding British operations in Afghanistan. Yet the Israeli Supreme Court has heard numerous cases regarding both the security fence and operations in Gaza.”
He added that “we have all the tools and all the mechanisms to investigate ourselves.”
Shifting the discussion to the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, Schneeweiss told the audience that a “full-court press” was needed to counter the various delegitimization efforts sprouting up across the globe.
“This is a challenge to Jewish identity in the common era,” he said. “And our response has often been a little too insular and too self-congratulatory. There’s a disconnect between our own internal debate and the external one, and we’re also too busy convincing ourselves that we’re right.”
All of those issues, Schneeweiss said, needed to be addressed if Israel was to effectively counter the campaigns against it worldwide.
“We need a single message, although the message we’re offering now is a
cacophony,” he said. “We also need to build coalitions and
relationships. It’s a bad situation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t
make improvements. We’ve had a lot of successes, and while I don’t
think the tide will turn any time soon, in the end I think it will.”
More information on getting involved in efforts to address the
delegitimization of Israel can be found at Hadar-Israel’s Web site: www.Hadar-Israel.org