JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday vowed never to allow Israeli leaders or soldiers to stand trial on war crimes charges over their actions during last winter's military offensive in the Gaza Strip, furiously denouncing a U.N. report in a keynote address to parliament.
Netanyahu's fiery rhetoric — and his decision to open the high-profile speech with remarks on the report — reflected the deep distress felt among Israeli leaders after a U.N. commission accused Israel of intentionally harming civilians when it launched a massive attack in Gaza to stop years of rocket fire.
"This distorted report, written by this distorted committee, undermines Israel's right to defend itself. This report encourages terrorism and threatens peace," Netanyahu said in his address at the opening of parliament's winter session. "Israel will not take risks for peace if it can't defend itself."
The U.N. report, compiled by a team led by former war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, accused Israel of using disproportionate force, deliberately targeting civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure during a three-week offensive against Hamas militants last winter. The report also accused Hamas of war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians and trying to spread terror with rocket attacks.
Israeli officials across the board have condemned the report, saying their country had little choice but to take harsh action against militants who were terrorizing southern Israel. They also blame Hamas for civilian casualties, saying the Islamic militant group took cover in residential areas during the fighting. However, Goldstone's strong credentials as a respected South African jurist, his Jewish faith and past support for Israeli causes have made it hard for Israel to dismiss the claims.
Netanyahu angrily noted the report's portrayal of Israeli leaders as war criminals. "The truth is exactly the opposite. Israel's leaders and its army are those who defended the citizens of Israel from war criminals," he said, before vowing to defend the country's wartime leaders.
"We will not allow Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, who sent our sons to war, to arrive at the international court in the Hague," he said.
While Netanyahu has repeatedly lashed out at the U.N. report, Monday's comments appeared to be a direct response to a new Palestinian push for a vote on the report in the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission. If the vote takes place, the matter could be referred to higher U.N. bodies that could theoretically push for war-crimes prosecution.
Earlier this month, Abbas' government had agreed to delay the vote for six months. That decision, which came under heavy U.S. pressure, sparked sharp criticism and protests across Palestinian society, particularly from the rival Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.
In contrast to predecessors who have used parliamentary addresses to speak of bold visions of peace, Netanyahu spoke in far bleaker terms. He focused on past Jewish suffering and criticized the futility of previous peace efforts, blaming Arab adversaries for their failure.
"The right to a Jewish state and the right to self-defense are two of the existential rights of our people," he said. "These basic rights of the Jewish people have been under greatly increasing attack. ... Our prime mission is to stave off this attack."
President Barack Obama has been trying to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to restart peace talks, which broke down late last year. Even after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he faces a daunting challenge in just getting the sides to talk, let alone in solving one of the world's longest lasting and most intractable conflicts.
The Palestinians say they will not resume negotiations until Israel freezes all construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas they claim as parts of a future independent state.
Netanyahu says some settlement construction must continue to accommodate growth in the Jewish populations. He also says all of Jerusalem will remain in Israeli hands, although Israel's annexation of the eastern part of the city and its sensitive holy sites has never been internationally recognized.
Netanyahu, for his part, has demanded the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state — a demand the Palestinians criticize as upping the ante from previous negotiations. The Palestinians say it would discriminate against Israel's Arab minority and deprive Palestinian refugees of their rights to lost properties in what is now Israel.
"For 62 years, the Palestinians have been saying 'No' to the Jewish state. I am once again calling upon our Palestinian neighbors; say 'Yes' to the Jewish state." he said. "Without recognition of Israel as the state of the Jews we shall not be able to attain peace."