Interview with Norman Finkelstein: The Goldstone recantation

On April 1, the Washington Post ran an op-ed piece by Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who chaired the UN fact-finding mission on the 2008-2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza. In it he suggested he'd gotten things wrong, writing, "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document." The op-ed led to an immediate flurry of articles and commentary suggesting the entire report -- and by implication the very notion that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza -- was suspect. Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu declared: "It's time to throw this report into the dustbin of history." Knesset member Tzipi Livni, told the media, "Better late than never, but the rectification must be stronger than a newspaper article."

All this stands against the reality of what happened. When I interviewed Norman Finkelstein, the scholar and author last year for the History News Network he gave an overview of events. Among other things he explained, "About 1,400 Palestinians were killed and about 13 Israelis were killed. Of the 1,400 Palestinian casualties, about four-fifths were civilians and 350 children. In the case of the Israelis 10 soldiers were killed, (four of them by friendly fire) and three civilians.... After the massacre ended [then] Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went on Channel 10 News in Israel and said 'Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded.'" I talked to Dr. Finkelstein recently via phone to get his assessment of the Goldstone recantation.
- Aaron Leonard

Aaron Leonard: Goldstone did not retract the substance of his findings but he has kicked open the door for his report to be questioned, what is going on here?

Norman Finkelstein: There are three separate questions. What is Goldstone saying, how is Goldstone being interpreted, and why Goldstone did it? The third question, no one is able to answer it is purely speculative, although in my opinion it is impossible that he issued his recantation on the grounds he alleges in the op-ed. That is to say there isn't a scintilla, there isn't a scratch, there isn't a jot of new evidence that can warrant his recantation.

On the other two questions. First, what Goldstone actually said in the op-ed. I think it is written in a purposely murky fashion. It is impossible to actually make out what Goldstone is saying. If Goldstone wanted to be clear about what he said, he certainly has enough grasp over the English language that he could have written a clear statement and it wouldn't have required a kind of parsing of words that has been going on since the op-ed was published. The only reasonable assumption is that since he had the capacity to write a lucid explanation for his recantation, but instead chose to write a murky recantation, then the only possible explanation is that it was purposeful. All those people who are saying if you look closely what Goldstone said he didn't say this or he didn't say that, I think is a pointless approach. If he did want to say this or that he could have just said it! He certainly has enough control over the English language that he could have said, 'I stand by my nine-tenths of the report.' Or 'I stand by everything in the report, except x and y.' That is not what he did. He wrote something that was purposely murky.

The second issue is, Goldstone knew exactly how his words were going to be spun. It took no great insight to [anticipate] that his words would be spun as a recantation, that he was saying that Israel had not committed any war crimes, and that he was saying that he was fully confident that Israel was able to carry out military investigations on its own and therefore didn't need to be referred to the International Criminal Court. That is what we have to deal with. Not what Goldstone allegedly said, if you parse his words. What you have to deal with is what the spin is saying because number one, the murkiness is intentional. If people say, 'I think Goldstone said Israel did not commit war crimes.' They have every right to interpret his murky op-ed that way because he knew that was how it would be interpreted.

AL: Your book, This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion references more than just the Goldstone Report...

NF: I did not rely in any way shape, manner or form on the Goldstone Report. There are now thousands and thousands of pages, literally it must run into several tens of thousands [on the Gaza invasion]. By one credible estimate there are 300 human rights reports on what happened in Gaza. The truth does not rise or fall on what Goldstone had to say in the report.

AL: What did Israel do in Gaza?

NF: It's impossible in the space of a phone interview to do give a full picture of that. What is clear is that Israel committed massive war crimes in the course of its assault on Gaza. It used massive indiscriminate force against a civilian population. What Goldstone said in the original report still stands, in my opinion, without requirement of any amendment. Israel launched "a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population." That's what happened.

AL: What do you think the impact and repercussion of this are?

NF: The recantation caused a disaster. He has obfuscated the truth about what happened in Gaza, he's poisoned Jewish-Palestinian relations, he's undermined the courageous work of Jewish dissidents inside Israel. He has delivered a smack in the face to the major human rights organizations. He has done a lot of damage. There is no question about it.

AL: What is the best thing to be done to counter this?

NF: I think it is very simple. Go through the record. There isn't one word, as I said in the beginning, there isn't jot, a scintilla, of new evidence to warrant the recantation. Quite the contrary, all the new evidence further confirms the original findings of the Goldstone Report.

AL: Has anyone been held accountable for the crimes committed in Gaza?

NF: Israel destroyed everything in sight in Gaza. They destroyed about 6,300 hundred homes, destroyed factories, agricultural land, targeted hospitals and ambulances, used white phosphorous in civilian areas. All told, as of now, one Israeli was given an unknown disciplinary punishment for the destruction of property in Gaza. Another Israeli has served prison time for criminal conduct in Gaza, he served seven-and-a-half-months in jail for stealing a credit card. That's it.

Aaron Leonard is a writer and journalist, he lives in New York City. His writings can be found at www.aaronleonard.net.

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