Israel hardened its opposition Tuesday to international calls for an independent inquiry into its fierce offensive against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip last winter, saying it would urge the U.S. to prevent the issue from advancing at the United Nations.
The decision came at a special Cabinet meeting called to discuss a U.N. report that has accused Israel and Palestinian militants of committing war crimes during the three-week operation. The report, which was adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council last week, recommends war crimes proceedings if the sides do not conduct credible independent investigations into their actions.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a fierce critic of the report, blocked a planned discussion Tuesday on whether to launch an investigation.
"There is no need for a committee of inquiry," said Barak, according to a statement from his office. "The Israeli military knows to examine itself better than anyone else," said Barak, himself a former military chief.
Instead, Cabinet ministers established a special lobbying team that will urge the U.S. to use its veto power in the Security Council to prevent legal action against Israelis, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
"Our struggle is to delegitimize the continuing attempt to delegitimize the state of Israel," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the meeting, according to his office. "The most important sphere we need to work in is the sphere of public opinion in the democratic world."
Both men have argued that the report was one-sided and undermines Israel's right to defend itself. They also say that internal military investigations are sufficient. So far, the internal probes have cleared the army of any systemic wrongdoing.
But international pressure for an independent query has mounted since last week's vote in the rights council.
Washington, which has reacted coolly to the report, is likely to veto attempts to prosecute Israelis. Still, the Israeli government is taking no chances. Tuesday's decision by the Security Cabinet, a group of seven senior ministers, assigned legal, political and diplomatic officials to the lobbying effort, the officials said.
The U.N. report, overseen by respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone, has created an uproar in Israel. Officials say the Human Rights Council, which includes many Arab and Muslim countries, is hopelessly biased against Israel.
Report: Civilians targeted
But Goldstone's credentials as a former war crimes prosecutor in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, his Jewish faith and his close ties to Israel have made it hard for Israel to ignore his findings. Goldstone has personally urged Israel to hold an independent investigation.
Israel attacked Gaza last December in a bid to end eight years of relentless rocket fire by Palestinian militants. Some 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, were killed in the three-week war, according to Palestinian officials and human rights groups. Thirteen Israelis, including four civilians, also died.
The Goldstone report concluded that Israel deliberately struck civilians and repeatedly destroyed civilian infrastructure without military justification. It also accused Palestinian rocket squads affiliated with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, and other Palestinian armed groups of deliberately going after Israeli civilians.
Each side has rejected the war crimes allegations against it.