Special Relationship

Exclusive new cables released by WikiLeaks reveal the United States' heavy-handed efforts to help Israel at the U.N.


In the aftermath of Israel’s 2008-2009 intervention into the Gaza Strip, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, led a vigorous campaign to stymie an independent U.N. investigation into possible war crimes, while using the prospect of such a probe as leverage to pressure Israel to participate in a U.S.-backed Middle East peace process, according to previously undisclosed diplomatic cables provided by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

The documents provide a rare glimpse behind the scenes at the U.N. as American diplomats sought to shield Israel’s military from outside scrutiny of its conduct during Operation Cast Lead. Their release comes as the issue is back on the front pages of Israel’s newspapers, following the surprise recent announcement by Richard Goldstone — an eminent South African jurist who led an investigation commissioned by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council — in a Washington Post op-ed that his team had unfairly accused Israel of deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians.

The new documents, though consistent with public U.S. statements at the time opposing a U.N. investigation into Israeli military operations, reveal in extraordinary detail how America wields its power behind closed doors at the United Nations. They also demonstrate how the United States and Israel were granted privileged access to highly sensitive internal U.N. deliberations on an “independent” U.N. board of inquiry into the Gaza war, raising questions about the independence of the process.

In one pointed cable, Rice repeatedly prodded U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to block a recommendation of the board of inquiry to carry out a sweeping inquiry into alleged war crimes by Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. In another cable, Rice issued a veiled warning to the president of the International Criminal Court, Sang-Hyun Song, that an investigation into alleged Israeli crimes could damage its standing with the United States at a time when the new administration was moving closer to the tribunal. “How the ICC handles issues concerning the Goldstone Report will be perceived by many in the US as a test for the ICC, as this is a very sensitive matter,” she told him, according to a Nov. 3, 2009, cable from the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

Rice, meanwhile, assured Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during an Oct. 21, 2009, meeting in Tel Aviv that the United States had done its utmost to “blunt the effects of the Goldstone report” and that she was confident she could “build a blocking coalition” to prevent any push for a probe by the Security Council, according to an Oct. 27, 2009 cable.

Israel launched a three-week-long offensive into Gaza in late 2008 in an effort to prevent Hamas and other Palestinian militants from firing rockets at Israeli towns. The Israel Defense Forces killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israel soldiers were also killed during Operation Cast Lead, and a number of U.N. facilities faced repeated attacks. The military campaign raised calls at the U.N. for an investigation into reports of war crimes.

In response, Ban commissioned a top U.N. troubleshooter, Ian Martin, to set up an independent U.N. board of inquiry into nine incidents in which the Israeli Defense Forces had allegedly fired on U.N. personnel or facilities. The U.N. probe — which established Israeli wrongdoing in seven of the nine cases — was the first outside investigation into the war, with a mandate to probe deaths, injuries, and damage caused at U.N. locations.

The board’s 184-page report has never been made public, but a 28-page summary released on May 5 concluded that Israel had shown “reckless disregard for the lives and safety” of civilians in the operation, citing one particularly troubling incident in which it struck a U.N.-run elementary school, killing three young men seeking shelter from the fighting. Israel denounced the findings as “tendentious, patently biased,” saying that an Israeli military inquiry had proved beyond a doubt that Israel had not intentionally attacked civilians.

But the most controversial part of the probe involved recommendations by Martin that the U.N. conduct a far-reaching investigation into violations of international humanitarian law by Israeli forces, Hamas, and other Palestinian militants. On May 4, 2009, the day before Martin’s findings were presented to the media, Rice caught wind of the recommendations and phoned Ban to complain that the inquiry had gone beyond the scope of its mandate by recommending a sweeping investigation.

“Given that those recommendations were outside the scope of the Board’s terms of reference, she asked that those two recommendations not be included in the summary of the report that would be transmitted to the membership,” according to an account contained in the May 4 cable. Ban initially resisted. “The Secretary-General said he was constrained in what he could do since the Board of Inquiry is independent; it was their report and recommendations and he could not alter them, he said,” according to the cable.

But Rice persisted, insisting in a subsequent call that Ban should at least “make clear in his cover letter when he transmits the summary to the Security Council that those recommendations exceeded the scope of the terms of reference and no further action is needed.” Ban offered no initial promise. She subsequently drove the point home again, underlining the “importance of having a strong cover letter that made clear that no further action was needed and would close out this issue.”

Ban began to relent, assuring Rice that “his staff was working with an Israeli delegation on the text of the cover letter.”

After completing the cover letter, Ban phoned back Rice to report that he believed “they had arrived at a satisfactory cover letter. Rice thanked the Secretary-General for his exceptional efforts on such a sensitive issue.”

At the following day’s news conference, Ban flat-out rejected Martin’s recommendation for an investigation. While underscoring the board’s independent nature, he made it clear that “it is not my intention to establish any further inquiry.” Although he acknowledged publicly that he had consulted with Israel on the findings, he did not say it had been involved in the preparation of the cover letter killing off the call for an investigation. Instead, he only made a request to the Israelis to pay the U.N. more than $11 million in financial compensation for the damage done to U.N. facilities.

When contacted about the cable by Turtle Bay, a U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, declined to comment on its contents, noting only that the original investigation was designed only to resolve a dispute with Israel over the damage done to its facilities and seek restitution.

But the issue was far from over. The U.N. Human Rights Council, which the United States has long criticized for singling out Israel for censure, had already established its own commission headed by Goldstone. Goldstone agreed to take on the assignment after he revised the terms of reference to allow for investigation into both Israel and Hamas. The Goldstone investigation coincided with U.S. efforts to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process. Israel was livid over the development, warning that it could undermine peace prospects.

In a Sept. 16 meeting with Rice, Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, called the Goldstone Report, which had been released the day before, “outrageous,” according to a diplomatic cable, adding that it would give Hamas a “free pass” to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Rice agreed, calling the report deeply flawed and biased. But she also saw its release as an opportunity to convince Israel to pursue a U.S.-backed peace process. She asked Ayalon to “help me help you” by embracing the peace process and highlighting Israel’s capacity to hold its own troops accountable for possible misconduct. She underscored that the Goldstone Report could be more easily managed if there was positive progress on the peace process, according to the cable. She also advised Israel that it “would be helpful” if it would emphasize its own judicial process and investigations” into the matter.

Rice reinforced that position a month later in a meeting with Lieberman, but the foreign minister was skeptical about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. “Israel and the United States had a responsibility not to foster illusions. A comprehensive peace was impossible,” said Lieberman, who “cited Cyprus as an example that Israel might emulate, claiming that no comprehensive solution was possible, but security, stability and prosperity were.”

The release of the cables comes as Rice is very publicly sticking with her position taking on the Goldstone Report. “The United States was very, very plain at the time and every day since that the Goldstone report was deeply flawed, and we objected to its findings and conclusions,” Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. “We didn’t see any evidence at the time that the Israeli government had intentionally targeted civilians or intentionally committed war crimes.”

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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