Marc Lynch

What was the Obama administration thinking with the Goldstone report?

 I’m still trying to figure out the thinking behind the Obama administration’s rapid moves to block the Goldstone report on the Gaza war.  Without even getting into the moral issues involved or the accuracy of the report, the most likely tactical considerations behind the administration’s decision seem short-sighted.  Its move likely responded to the intense ...

 I’m still trying to figure out the thinking behind the Obama administration’s rapid moves to block the Goldstone report on the Gaza war.  Without even getting into the moral issues involved or the accuracy of the report, the most likely tactical considerations behind the administration’s decision seem short-sighted.  Its move likely responded to the intense public and private Israeli campaign against the report, and probably aimed at winning back some positive relations with the Israelis and maintaining momentum on the peace process. 

 But if the administration’s hope was that killing the report would make the issue quietly go away while winning some political capital with the Israelis, it is likely to be disappointed.  Quite the contrary:  the report is becoming a major political issue in the Arab world, badly damaging the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, while Obama seems to be getting little credit from Israeli public opinion or the Israeli government.   

 Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are already paying a heavy price for succumbing to reported American pressure to drop the report.  It isn’t just Hamas criticism, though there’s plenty of that.  This has rapidly become a leading issue in the Palestinian and Arab media, and is shaping up into a profound setback for the already weak PA leadership.  Virtually every sector of Palestinian opinion — from Hamas to Fatah, from Gaza to the West Bank — has united in harsh criticism of the move.  Even Mohammed Dahlan — Dahlan! — is positioning himself in opposition, showing where he thinks the political points are to be scored.  The Economics Minister in Fayyad’s government Bassem al-Khoury reportedly submitted his resignation in protest.   Given his key role in pushing the so-called "economic peace" that Israeli and American officials are so keen upon, perhaps that will get more attention than the massive, broad-based criticism across the rest of Palestinian society.  

 There seems to be little question that Abbas’s decision to go along with American pressure will have a significant impact on the popularity and legitimacy of the PA.  He is already backpedaling in the face of the intense public backlash, announcing the formation of a committee to look into the "circumstances surrounding the issue" (gee, wonder what he’ll find when he investigates his own decision?), but it’s probably too late.  Whatever gains made by Fatah after its Bethlehem conference and by Fayyad with the announcement of his agenda for a Palestinian state are likely to be washed away in this deluge.  The credibility of the Hamas narrative about the PA’s collaboration with Israel and unrepresentative nature will be strongly enhanced. And it will not help Salam Fayyad establish authority that he has been fingered by some sources as the person directly responsible for the decision. 

Why was the PA leadership put in this untenable situation?  The Obama team has consistently identified building Palestinian Authority legitimacy and capacity as a key part of its strategy.  Did nobody consider the impact that such an important symbolic issue as the perceived suppression of the Goldstone report would have on this supposedly crucial dimension of the strategy?  

 At the wider Arab level, the American stance on the Goldstone report has galvanized doubts about the credibility of Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world and claims to genuine change.  The skeptics who demanded deeds to match words are having a field day.  As much as the inability to prevail in the battle over the settlements hurt Obama’s credibility with the Arab world, at least he got some credit for trying, for prioritizing the issue and paying some costs to keep at it.  But the Goldstone report decision looks to most of the Arab public as a straightforward capitulation to Israel and abdication of any claims to the moral high ground. It will further undermine the Cairo promises, which look ever more distant. 

 Meanwhile, I have searched in vain for signs that the Israeli public or hawkish commentariat have given the Obama administration any credit for its efforts.  Israeli commentators seem to have simply taken the American protection for granted, or grudgingly acknowledged it in passing, without revising their views of Obama. The scornful, dismissive tone of the hawks towards Obama continues, while doves largely ignore it or disagree.  If there’s been a concerted effort to leverage the decision to improve his standing with the Israeli leadership or public, I haven’t seen it. 

 I can understand the decision to sacrifice the Goldstone inquiry into the Gaza war to tactical or strategic considerations, whether or not I agree with the call.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  But I would hope that such a decision would have seriously anticipated the implications for the legitimacy and efficacy of the Palestinian Authority, for Obama’s credibility among Arab and Muslim audiences, or for how to leverage it into real gains with the Israeli public.  

 I’m still trying to figure out the thinking behind the Obama administration’s rapid moves to block the Goldstone report on the Gaza war.  Without even getting into the moral issues involved or the accuracy of the report, the most likely tactical considerations behind the administration’s decision seem short-sighted.  Its move likely responded to the intense public and private Israeli campaign against the report, and probably aimed at winning back some positive relations with the Israelis and maintaining momentum on the peace process. 

 But if the administration’s hope was that killing the report would make the issue quietly go away while winning some political capital with the Israelis, it is likely to be disappointed.  Quite the contrary:  the report is becoming a major political issue in the Arab world, badly damaging the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, while Obama seems to be getting little credit from Israeli public opinion or the Israeli government.   

 Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are already paying a heavy price for succumbing to reported American pressure to drop the report.  It isn’t just Hamas criticism, though there’s plenty of that.  This has rapidly become a leading issue in the Palestinian and Arab media, and is shaping up into a profound setback for the already weak PA leadership.  Virtually every sector of Palestinian opinion — from Hamas to Fatah, from Gaza to the West Bank — has united in harsh criticism of the move.  Even Mohammed Dahlan — Dahlan! — is positioning himself in opposition, showing where he thinks the political points are to be scored.  The Economics Minister in Fayyad’s government Bassem al-Khoury reportedly submitted his resignation in protest.   Given his key role in pushing the so-called "economic peace" that Israeli and American officials are so keen upon, perhaps that will get more attention than the massive, broad-based criticism across the rest of Palestinian society.  

 There seems to be little question that Abbas’s decision to go along with American pressure will have a significant impact on the popularity and legitimacy of the PA.  He is already backpedaling in the face of the intense public backlash, announcing the formation of a committee to look into the "circumstances surrounding the issue" (gee, wonder what he’ll find when he investigates his own decision?), but it’s probably too late.  Whatever gains made by Fatah after its Bethlehem conference and by Fayyad with the announcement of his agenda for a Palestinian state are likely to be washed away in this deluge.  The credibility of the Hamas narrative about the PA’s collaboration with Israel and unrepresentative nature will be strongly enhanced. And it will not help Salam Fayyad establish authority that he has been fingered by some sources as the person directly responsible for the decision. 

Why was the PA leadership put in this untenable situation?  The Obama team has consistently identified building Palestinian Authority legitimacy and capacity as a key part of its strategy.  Did nobody consider the impact that such an important symbolic issue as the perceived suppression of the Goldstone report would have on this supposedly crucial dimension of the strategy?  

 At the wider Arab level, the American stance on the Goldstone report has galvanized doubts about the credibility of Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world and claims to genuine change.  The skeptics who demanded deeds to match words are having a field day.  As much as the inability to prevail in the battle over the settlements hurt Obama’s credibility with the Arab world, at least he got some credit for trying, for prioritizing the issue and paying some costs to keep at it.  But the Goldstone report decision looks to most of the Arab public as a straightforward capitulation to Israel and abdication of any claims to the moral high ground. It will further undermine the Cairo promises, which look ever more distant. 

 Meanwhile, I have searched in vain for signs that the Israeli public or hawkish commentariat have given the Obama administration any credit for its efforts.  Israeli commentators seem to have simply taken the American protection for granted, or grudgingly acknowledged it in passing, without revising their views of Obama. The scornful, dismissive tone of the hawks towards Obama continues, while doves largely ignore it or disagree.  If there’s been a concerted effort to leverage the decision to improve his standing with the Israeli leadership or public, I haven’t seen it. 

 I can understand the decision to sacrifice the Goldstone inquiry into the Gaza war to tactical or strategic considerations, whether or not I agree with the call.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  But I would hope that such a decision would have seriously anticipated the implications for the legitimacy and efficacy of the Palestinian Authority, for Obama’s credibility among Arab and Muslim audiences, or for how to leverage it into real gains with the Israeli public.  

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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