The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday takes up a report condemning Israel for actions during last winter's offensive into Gaza, in the midst of some of the highest tension between Israelis and Palestinians in recent years.
Tensions over Israeli settlement construction, riots in Jerusalem, and now fallout from the UN's Goldstone report on human rights violations in the Gaza fighting have combined to suddenly darken President Obama's prospects for progress toward Middle East peace.
The Goldstone report – named after a South African jurist, Richard Goldstone, who headed an inquiry into the Gaza war commissioned by the UN's Human Rights Council – concluded last month that Israel and Hamas both violated international law during the fighting. But it also suggests that Israel committed international war crimes and calls on the Security Council to refer the report's allegations to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague if the violating parties don't investigate the claims.
The Goldstone report arrives in the Security Council at the request of Libya, one day before it is set to be taken up anew by the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The Human Rights Council's (HRC) decision to take up the report Thursday is likely to reduce some of the explosive potential of having the Security Council, the world's premier security body, addressing issues of Israeli and Palestinian aggression and warfare.
The Palestinian leadership originally bowed to US pressure and agreed to delay the report's consideration in the HRC until March. But after coming under withering criticism at home, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reversed himself and asked that the HRC take it up this week. The Human Rights Council could vote to refer the report to higher UN bodies, a move that could return the report's charges to the Security Council – and theoretically before the ICC.
The US has criticized what it calls a "flawed" report and maintains that it should be taken up, if anywhere, by the Human Rights Council, not the Security Council. But the kinds of charges the report makes do indeed belong in the Security Council, say some international law experts.
"It's difficult to argue that it doesn't belong in the Security Council given what the council has already done with the situation in Darfur," says Hurst Hannum, a specialist in human rights and conflict resolution at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "That doesn't mean it's a case that should be referred to the ICC, but the Human Rights Council should make the UN's higher bodies aware of what it has learned."
Repercussions from the report, and the Palestinian leadership's initial playing down of the report at a time when relaunched peace talks looked possible, have helped to ratchet up rhetoric across the Israeli-Palestinian divide and make any return to the negotiating table all the more distant.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday called the Goldstone report "biased" and "absurd," after earlier insisting that the peace process could not proceed as long as it is under consideration.
Mr. Abbas had his own tough and defiant words for Israel and the peace process Monday. Most analysts in the region saw them as his effort to rebuild support among Palestinians after he initially sought to bury the report.
The Israelis have "worked themselves up into quite a state" over the report, says WINEP's Mr. Clawson. One explanation is that the report emerges from a Human Rights Council that replaced another UN institution, the Human Rights Commission, that was widely disregarded after years of focusing on Israel's treatment of the Palestinians while overlooking the world's tyrants.
"It was supposed to replace a discredited body with more reasoned work," Clawson says, "but this council has rushed ahead and followed the exact same pattern."
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