A meeting of Israel's inner security cabinet yesterday left ministers split over whether to yield to growing diplomatic pressure to hold a major public investigation to deflect the findings of the UN's Goldstone report on last winter's war in Gaza.
The meeting postponed any decision on an independent investigation as it emerged that the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, has so far led opposition to the setting up of an inquiry.
Officials in the foreign and justice ministries have been urging the establishment of an inquiry – possibly under a senior Israeli judge – as the best means of neutralising the adverse diplomatic fallout from the report, which Israel has fiercely rejected as biased.
The report, which calls for an investigation into possible war crimes by both Israel and Hamas but devotes most of its 570 pages to fierce criticism of Israel's conduct, was referred to the UN General Assembly last week by the Human Rights Council. While the US opposed the resolution and Britain and France did not vote, the governments of all three countries have advised Israel to hold its own inquiry.
In the face of Mr Barak's opposition and with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, yet to reach a firm conclusion, yesterday's meeting did not discuss the form or scope of any inquiry, let alone whether it would be allowed to initiate criminal prosecutions as envisaged in the report by Richard Goldstone, a respected former South African Supreme Court judge.
Instead the meeting decided to intensify Israel's diplomatic efforts to urge more countries to reject outright the Goldstone report after Mr Netanyahu told ministers: "Our struggle is to delegitimise the continuing attempt to delegitimise the state of Israel. The most important sphere we need to work in is the sphere of public opinion in the democratic world."
While some Israeli officials predicted that in the end pressure – including from within parts of the Israeli establishment – to hold an inquiry would be irresistible, others indicated there was still strong opposition to an inquiry outside the justice ministry.
The defence ministry is partly arguing that such an investigation could compromise or even discredit the 100 separate investigations – including 20 criminal ones – it says it is still holding into specific allegations about the conduct of units in the operation, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead.
Other ministers argue that no inquiry will offset what they regard as the systematic bias against Israel of many Muslim and other countries who lined up to endorse last week's Human Rights Council resolution, pointing out that it did not even explicitly mention Hamas.
Against this is the fear that the absence of further action inside Israel could up the risk of proceedings against generals and politicians when they travel to Europe, or even of proceedings by the International Criminal Court.
While the US has indicated it will veto any Security Council resolution calling for proceedings by the ICC – of which Israel, like the US, is not a signatory – a UN General Assembly decision in favour of such proceedings cannot be ruled out.
Meanwhile, it emerged yesterday that Mr Goldstone, who is Jewish, himself told a group of American rabbis in a telephone conference call on Sunday night: "If the Israeli government set up an open investigation, that would really be the end of the matter, as far as Israel is concerned."
*A Palestinian was manhandled by Palestinian security guards in the West Bank city of Hebron yesterday after shouting "You are a terrorist" at the international Middle East envoy Tony Blair. The man, who was carrying a bag, shouted: "He is not welcome in the land of Palestine," as he was backed into a corner. An aide to Mr Blair said last night that there had been no threat to the former prime minister and he had otherwise been warmly welcomed.
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