Analysis: Between the extremes

Analysis Between the ex

The previous government of Ehud Olmert and the current government of Binyamin Netanyahu have gone out of their way in the last year or so to praise the growing effectiveness of Palestinian Authority forces, trained under US supervision, in bringing a greater degree of calm and security to certain Palestinian areas of the West Bank. Gradually, cautiously and warily, amid that improving climate, Israel has transferred to those PA forces greater responsibilities, while also gradually improving freedom of movement for ordinary Palestinians through the West Bank. The hope, strongly encouraged by the international community, has been that the PA forces can become an effective player in the battle against terrorism. Some in Israel consider this a realistic aspiration. Others strongly doubt that any Palestinian force, no matter how carefully vetted and how well trained, can ever serve as a partner for Israel in the anti-terror struggle. The behavior of the PA over Judge Richard Goldstone's report on Operation Cast Lead, however, is leading Israeli officials, in the security forces and beyond, to question ever more deeply whether the PA itself, in its current constellation, can serve as a genuine partner in that struggle. For it is the PA, most emphatically encompassing its President Mahmoud Abbas and its widely admired Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, that is pushing hard for Israel's Goldstone-alleged "war crimes" in Gaza to be brought within the jurisdiction of the international legal mechanisms in The Hague. It is the PA, Israel's ostensible partner on the ground, that is agitating for Israel to stand in the dock. Writing in Yediot Aharonot on Thursday, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy described the Goldstone panel, with good cause, as tantamount to a creation of the PA. While Abbas was privately urging Israel to finish the job against Hamas in Gaza at the turn of the year - a Hamas that had killed and wounded hundreds of his Fatah loyalists when it seized power in the Strip in 2007 - the PA president and his officials simultaneously rushed to the UN Security Council to accuse Israel of war crimes, Halevy notes, and stirred the accommodating Israel-bashers of the UN's Human Rights Council into establishing what became the Goldstone mission. Halevy rightly castigates Abbas's astounding hypocrisy: On the one hand, the PA accuses Israel of war crimes and seeks, by extension, to constrain Israel's right to self-defense; on the other hand, the PA knows that it owes its very survival in the West Bank to the IDF's tenacious ongoing battle against Hamas. The officers Abbas would now like to see arrested for their "crimes" in Gaza, Halevy points out, are the very same officers who, with their troops, are risking their lives to keep him and his Authority in power - indeed, to keep him alive. Halevy's suggested remedy for this cynical hypocrisy is for Israel to immediately halt "all security, economic and diplomatic activity" that bolsters the PA. Israel cannot tolerate a situation, he adds, "whereby IDF officers are helping the Palestinians with their day-to-day lives while their fellow officers are hounded as war criminals overseas because of the activities of the emissaries of the generals in Ramallah." If adopted and maintained, however, that strategy could presumably lead to the collapse of the PA, and its replacement by Hamas - an eventuality Israel might not regard as being in its best interest. At the other extreme, though, is an economic remedy already reportedly being pursued by Israel. So furious is Israel at the PA's duplicity - desperately seeking IDF cooperation in the West Bank, while desperately pushing the IDF's delegitimation abroad - that Israel has made clear that it will not sanction the establishment of a second mobile phone provider for the West Bank unless the PA changes course. Plainly, this is an inadequate - indeed farcical - response. Behind the scenes, Israeli officials are searching for a viable middle ground - pressure on the PA that cannot be laughed off (as the mobile phone threat certainly can) but that does not go so far as to bring down Abbas (as Halevy would essentially countenance, and as some in the Netanyahu coalition might endorse as well). It is not unreasonable to believe that such ground can be found, given the complex patchwork of relations between Israel and the PA, where cooperation can be improved, or withdrawn, to such immediate and significant effect. The common sense path is desperately being sought, too, as regards stopping the potentially devastating international legal ripples of Goldstone. The one extreme, of doing nothing but denouncing the report as biased, flawed, unjust and plain wrong, may satisfy the national sense of justice, but it won't help protect officers from prosecution abroad, won't prevent future such missions and won't prevent the intensifying international effort to turn Israel into a pariah state with ever-fewer friends. The other extreme, of consenting to any kind of international investigation, would represent an unthinkable abandonment of sovereign authority. And setting up a panel, as some have suggested, with the likes of international legal heavyweights Alan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler, it could be argued, would risk the worst of all worlds: implying a legitimacy for outside oversight, to the delight of Israel's critics, while choosing Jewish, Israel-backing jurists whose findings would thus be utterly derided by those same critics at the UN and beyond. The solution may lie in the establishment of some kind of independent, domestic mechanism that ensures not only that the IDF - which currently investigates itself - acts morally, but also that it is seen to be acting morally. Israel's impressive history of independent panels of investigation, which have not hesitated to draw dramatic conclusions, means that any such panel would enjoy widespread credibility. Unlike Goldstone's, however, it would actually be impartial, and looking at an IDF that insists it has nothing to hide and nothing to fear from a genuinely fair-minded assessment of its actions.