The UN Human Rights Council has passed by a large majority (25-6) a resolution endorsing the findings of the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war. It plans to send its recommendations to the General Assembly and to ask the Security Council to monitor the recommended independent probes of the report's allegations. While the U.S. and five others voted no, it was extremely striking that several major powers -- including the UK and France -- refrained from voting. Pakistan, our crucial ally in the Afghanistan mission, voted in favor along with Egypt and 23 others. The Israeli government is outraged, and the level of rhetoric is hotter than ever.
That rhetoric has always been out of balance with the actual stakes. The Security Council is highly unlikely to do anything with it, since the United States will surely veto any move to act upon it. But the passage of the resolution is significant nonetheless, primarily because the stakes had been raised by the bizarrely intense Israeli lobbying effort against it and by the disastrous decision by Mahmoud Abbas to initially ask for it to be shelved. Contrary to the apocalyptic talk coming out about the decision, it could actually help moves towards Israeli-Palestinian peace in at least three ways.
First, the vote shows that Israel is paying a price for its short-sighted diplomatic strategy of confrontation with the Obama administration. Israel's Ambassador tried to rally support by saying "Do you support the importance of the promotion of peace between Israel and Palestinians? If you do ... you must reject today's proposal." The general response to the Israeli threat that the passage of the report would doom Israel's participation in peace talks has been disbelief and even mockery. What peace talks?
Netanyahu has spent many long months doing everything in his power to subvert Obama's peace initiatives, defying the demand to freeze settlements and inciting American and Israeli public opinion against the President and against peace. Where Obama rallied near-universal international support for his vision of rapid progress towards a real two state solution and genuine Israeli-Arab peace, Netanyahu dug in his heels and fought every step of the way. The world notices. If Netanyahu decided to walk away from peace talks, how would anyone be able to tell the difference?
Second, the passage of the report may slightly increase the odds of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement under Egyptian auspices. The Palestinian Authority, badly hurt by the crisis generated by Abu Mazen's decision to ask for its deferral, responded by accepting the Egyptian proposal and challenging Hamas to do the same. Hamas, suspicious of Egyptian mediation, internally divided, and uneasy about throwing the PA a lifeline, has stalled and requested more time to decide. With the Goldstone issue somewhat defused, an agreement may now be slightly more possible (even if the U.S. reportedly remains opposed). Given that the Egyptians are talking about holding two seperate signing ceremonies so that Hamas and Fatah don't have to be in the same room with each other, I doubt that any deal signed soon will amount to actual reconciliation -- but perhaps it could be a starting point.
Third, the U.S. will almost certainly veto any move in the Security Council to act on the report. But given how much importance the Israeli government has given to the Goldstone Report, this veto might actually be used as a form of leverage. Obama's push for peace is at the brink of collapse almost entirely because of Netanyahu's intransigence. But the administration has thus far seemed highly reluctant to actually put any serious pressure on the Israeli government -- which has only emboldened Netanyahu and his enablers to dig in their heels further. The use of the veto to protect Israel from Goldstone should not be free.
I don't think the passage of the resolution is all that significant in and of itself. I've found the level and heat of rhetoric surrounding the report to be bafflingly over the top. But there's still a slim chance to turn these developments into something positive -- if it even marginally leads Israel to rethink the costs of refusing to engage in serious peace talks and of openly confronting the Obama administration at every turn, leads Hamas and Fatah to finally strike a deal which politically reunifies the West Bank and Gaza while paving the way to elections, and increases U.S. leverage over Israel. None especially likely, but at least worth thinking about.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.