TEL AVIV // In Israel's latest attempt to shift criticism away from its devastating attack in the Gaza Strip nearly 18 months ago, the country is renewing its criticism of the former South African judge who had accused it of war crimes. In an attempt to discredit Richard Goldstone, Israeli diplomats and leading political figures have seized on a report in Israel's top newspaper accusing him of sentencing dozens of black Africans to death on behalf of South Africa's apartheid-era regime.
Backed by right-leaning, pro-Israel supporters who have circulated the report in numerous blogs and pointed to it during media interviews, top Israeli officials have charged Mr Goldstone of using the United Nations investigation that he headed into Israel's 22-day military operation in Gaza to cover up for his own botched human-rights record. Referring to Mr Goldstone's response that he was obligated as a judge to enforce South African law then, Danny Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister, compared him to the Nazis. He said recently: "I don't want to exaggerate, but these are the same explanations that we heard in Nazi Germany after World War II."
Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of Israel's parliament and a leading member of the governing right-wing Likud Party, condemned Mr Goldstone as a "man of double standards" and added: "Such a person should not be allowed to lecture to a democratic state defending itself against terrorists." In the US, Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor who in January blasted Mr Goldstone as an "evil man" for his UN report, has now likened him to Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor who had conducted experiments on prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp and sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths. According to Mr Dershowitz, "a lot of people say we just follow the law that was Mengele's defence and that was what everybody said in Nazi Germany".
Furthermore, Neal Sher, a prominent New York-based Jewish attorney and the former head of the powerful Jewish lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, last week urged US officials to bar Mr Goldstone from entering the United States because of his judicial record in apartheid-era South Africa. Mr Goldstone has defended his actions. He told the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz: "I took an appointment to the bench, as did a number of liberal judges, and we had to uphold the law of the country. It was a moral dilemma to do that, but the approach was that it was better to fight from the inside than not at all."
He added that he has always been against capital punishment, but had to adhere to South Africa's laws at the time and had sentenced two people to death for murders committed during armed robberies. He also said there were a number of death-penalty appeals that failed when he had served as part of a panel of three judges at the Supreme Court of Appeal from 1990 to 1994. His response has been supported by Arthur Chaskalson, a former chief justice of South Africa, who has called accusations of Mr Goldstone's complicity with the apartheid regime "absolute nonsense".
In a statement he issued with George Bizos, a long-time ally and lawyer of Nelson Mandela, who had served as South Africa's first black president after a 27-year imprisonment for his fight against apartheid, he added: "He was one of a small group of judges who did their best to mitigate the harshness of apartheid." The two also pointed to the fact that Mr Goldstone was appointed by Mr Mandela after the apartheid era ended in 1994 to the country's new constitutional court, in which he had served until his retirement in 2003.
Israel's critics have condemned the country's new campaign, claiming the country was itself a supporter of the apartheid regime. According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky, a senior editor at Foreign Affairs magazine, who has written a book on Israel's alliance with the apartheid-era government, Israel had served as South Africa's most reliable arms supplier from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s. By 1979, South Africa had become the Israeli defence industry's single largest customer, accounting for about one-third of military exports and dwarfing other clients like Argentina or Chile, Mr Polakow-Suransky wrote.
Human-rights groups have urged Israel to cease trying to divert attention away from the Gaza operation, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, and launch a credible investigation into the onslaught, as was recommended by Mr Goldstone's UN report last September. Hagai el Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, wrote in Haaretz: "We can stick pins in the Goldstone voodoo doll as much as we want to, but when we wake up tomorrow morning, the very same reality will still be there. Morally speaking, it's high time for our wake-up call for truth-seeking instead of desperately, cynically, self-servingly trying to hide it - and hiding from it."