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From Gold to Bolton to King John (more on the lawfare conference!)

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On March 11, I attended the all-day Israel love-fest entitled "Lawfare", the term coined to describe any effort to hold Israel accountable to international law. Max Blumenthal already has provided readers with an excellent summation of the afternoon proceedings. I found particularly noteworthy his report that Columbia Law Professor Katherine Franke asked Columbia Law Dean David Schizer, one of the conference chairs, why no opposing speakers had been invited, and Schizer lamely responded that one or two speakers had been invited but were unable to attend. The principal organizer of the event, Brooke Goldstein, lined up 15 or 20 speakers who shared a collective viewpoint that Israel should be protected from any legal challenge. Goldstein herself addressed the assembly and voiced the same perspective. The notion that she, or someone else, invited one or two contrary speakers for balance is simply absurd. Certainly Goldstein did not pretend that there was any attempt to be even-handed. If Schizer wanted to participate in this one-sided affair, he should at least be candid about its nature.

Alan Dershowitz himself was not present, but his inconsistent approach to the legal framework of the conflict hovered over the proceedings. Dershowitz insists that Israel is almost completely blameless under existing international law, but just to be safe, he has proposed modifications, such as a "continuum of civilianity" that makes certain civilians more killable than others, and "worst first," that provides immunity from international law for all but the single worst human rights offender; everyone else gets a pass until the worst is in the dock. Similar themes were repeated throughout the day. Israel has every right to defend itself, even including actions that surely will result in civilian deaths, and by the way, how dare anyone suggest that Israel intentionally kills civilians.

Interestingly, the most well-received speaker was former UN ambassador John Bolton, who adamantly insisted that the US, and Israel are entitled to disregard international law completely and act according to their own whims. He drew the biggest ovations of the day with remarks like "I believe in disproportionate force," and "If other countries want to subordinate themselves to international law, be my guest." He disparaged the authority of any international code or organization, saying that the US (and Israel, by implication) need not say, "Mother, may I," when exercising "full spectrum dominance," by which he clearly meant launching overwhelming military force against any country or target chosen by the country’s leadership. No doubt Bolton’s absolute contempt for international law and UN authority made him Bush’s perfect choice for UN Ambassador.

Dore Gold was another popular speaker. Fresh from his pathetic performance in a debate against Goldstone at Brandeis, Gold sought to score post-game points. He chose this occasion to reveal that new information had come to light about Israel’s mosque attack that killed 15 worshipers, an incident that Goldstone has repeatedly singled out as particularly reprehensible. According to Gold, the Israeli bombers did not know that the structure was a mosque because it had no minaret. Moreover, they accurately targeted a group of young militants meeting outside the mosque, killing 15 who deserved to die, and the force of the blast carried inside where it might have injured some innocents. (And imagine – there are some who still claim that Israel is unable to properly investigate its own actions.) Gold also bemoaned this week’s EU vote in favor of the Goldstone report: He speculated that Hezbollah would be studying the report for tips on how to fire rockets at Israel from densely populated areas in Lebanon in an effort to goad the Israelis to return fire and kill civilians. Apparently, Gold forgot that Israel already used this pathetic excuse throughout the 2006 Lebanon "war."

There was frequent use of the buzz words of today’s discourse – delegitimizing and demonization. Irwin Cotler, one of numerous Canadian presenters, expressed outrage at the accusation of apartheid, meant to delegitimize Israel. He noted that apartheid is considered a "crime against humanity," apparently thinking that the gravity of the accusation was a sufficient defense thereto. He offered no counter-analysis as to why the system of separate roads, facilities, justice systems and grossly unequal allocation of resources in the Occupied Territories was not actual apartheid, similar or worse than its manifestation in South Africa. Nor did he acknowledge the existence of state-sanctioned discrimination against Israel’s minority non-Jewish citizens in virtually every public sphere. I guess he feels it is "legitimizable" bigotry. Other speakers were similarly offended at the comparison, but no one explained why it is inappropriate.

David Scharia, an Israeli attorney specializing in counter-terrorism, noted how much more difficult it became for Shin Bet to acquire information when Israel’s High Court finally banned routine torture for detainees in 1999. Hamas adapted to the ruling by training its operatives to cry "torture," which of course was impossible because the practice had been banned. ( I suppose previously, Hamas complaints of torture fell on deaf ears because the practice was legal.) While not condemning the ruling outright, Scharia noted that the process of "counter-terrorism" had been rendered lengthier and more complex by the unavailability of physical means to extract information.  It’s a tough world, especially when your hands are tied.

Law Professor Ruth Wedgwood allowed that "you can never deliberately attack a civilian or civilian object," but then failed to recognize that that most reasonable maxim should be applied to Israel as well as Hamas.

For comic relief, there was a rather bizarre address by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. Ignoring the fact that the conference was falling well behind schedule when he spoke, he quoted at considerable length from Shakespeare’s King John, eventually stumbling to the punchline "Fight fire with fire." Anyone’s guess is as good as mine as to Shurtleff’s unlikely appearance at this conference.

At one point, Dore Gold, referring to Goldstone, said, "This report is not going away." For me, it was the most truthful, and encouraging, moment in the entire day. The Shakespeare lesson was a distant second.

About David Samel

David Samel is an attorney in New York City.

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