In the wake of the Goldstone Report and amid the nuclear threat from Iran, 10 state senators, through the American-Israel Friendship League and the National Conference of State Legislatures, are on a study tour of Israel.
With a jam-packed itinerary, the NCSL delegation is meeting with officials such as Ron Dermer, senior adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Daniel Taub, director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Law Division.
No. 1 on the meeting agenda? Goldstone.
According to Georgia State Sen. Don Balfour, president of the NCSL, the Goldstone document is misunderstood in the United States.
"Yesterday we had a meeting about the Goldstone Report. The average American says, 'Hey, war crimes? [with a shocked look on his face],' but then you read it and you see almost everything we [US] do is a war crime.
"Sometimes there are civilian casualties, which is horrible. But is that a war crime? If so, that changes the way we define war," he said.
If indeed the IDF is accused of war crimes, "Every soldier is going to be a war criminal. If you bomb an al-Qaida terrorist and one of their family members dies, that would be a war crime," Balfour said.
(Indeed John Bolton, a former American ambassador to the UN, has argued that the Goldstone Report has strong implications for the future of the US and warfare. "In the UN, Israel frequently serves as a surrogate target in lieu of the US, particularly concerning the use of military force preemptively or in self-defense," Bolton wrote in an October 19 Wall Street Journal op-ed. "Accordingly, UN decisions on ostensibly Israel-specific issues can lay a predicate for subsequent action against, or efforts to constrain, the US. Mr. Goldstone's recommendation to convoke the International Criminal Court is like putting a loaded pistol to Israel's head - or, in the future, to America's.").
On September 29, 32 US senators signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the Obama administration to block any punitive measures against Israel at the UN on account of the report.
Sponsored by Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) and Kristen Gillbrand (D-New York), the letter focuses on Israel's right to protect itself after years of rocket attacks from Gaza.
The US State Department has criticized the "one-sided mandate" of the Goldstone Report and cited "serious flaws" in the investigation.
Balfour said he agreed with the US government's disapproval of the Goldstone Report, saying, "I wouldn't even say that the report is one-sided. It is perverted and it changes the game of war."
Meetings with Israeli politicians have been eye opening for the state senators, who have learned about Israel's past, present and future pressing issues, he added.
During a meeting at the Knesset on Wednesday, the senators heard an MK describe the battle of Jenin in 2002. In the midst of the second intifada, the IDF entered a refugee camp that had served as the launching site for many terrorist attacks. Rumors circulated that the ensuing battle had been a "massacre" against the Palestinian people.
The Knesset member explained, however, that the army went door-to-door looking for terrorists rather than immediately bombing a suspected house. The IDF put soldiers at risk to save Palestinian bystanders. This was the kind of information that slipped through many media reports, Balfour said.
He added that during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, "People will read an article and say, 'Israel bombed Lebanon?!' What they do not know, however, is Lebanon sent 10,000 bombs [to Israel]," he said, referring to mortar shells and Katyusha rockets.
If Mexico were to fire rockets into the United States, Balfour said, the US would probably react after one or two rockets hit. Americans simply do not realize that thousands of rockets have been launched into Israel, prompting a reaction.
In the case of Goldstone, many Americans are also not aware that the IDF warned civilians to leave areas where gunmen were operating. Balfour praised the army for dropping leaflets and urging civilians to evacuate. "People don't do that kind of thing historically," he said.
Moving forward, the problem facing politicians worldwide was how exactly to define a war crime, he went on. Balfour suggested a definition, one from Operation Cast Lead itself.
"When they set up terror missiles next to a school, on top of a hospital, in front of a kindergarten, that ought to be a war crime," he said. "When they set up missiles on schools and hospitals, you eventually have to take those missiles out."
Meetings with Israeli officials have enhanced the senators' understanding not only of the Goldstone Report, but of how it directly impacts the Israeli people and government, he said. The delegation is focusing on education and cooperation, and meetings have been informational, without political pressure of any sort.
The state senators will not only go home with a greater knowledge of Israel, but a greater knowledge of America, he said. "The goal of the trip is to become familiar with Israel - the issues and the country," Balfour said. "Israel gives us perspective on how to solve our problems. We will go back wondering and thinking how we can work similarly."
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