Judge Richard Goldstone's Third Act

Just as we thought South African Jewish judge Richard Goldstone's transformation from author of a libelous United Nations report on the 2009 Gaza War to repentant waffler was complete, his latest act of contortion, performed in a Times op-ed this morning, takes Goldstone suddenly from equivocator to defender of Israel, namely against the charge that it is an apartheid state.

Goldstone calls the slander against Israel "one particularly pernicious and enduring canard," which is pretty forceful language for someone who once characterized Israeli operations in the Gaza War as the premeditated murder of civilians. (This is the main charge he later retracted). Nevertheless, his words (and whatever weight they may still carry) are interesting and not unwelcome. Judge Goldstone is turning into a fascinating character.

As a South African jurist, Goldstone, with a deep knowledge of historical context, is someone who can make the distinction between what is apartheid and what's not:

I know all too well the cruelty of South Africa's abhorrent apartheid system, under which human beings characterized as black had no rights to vote, hold political office, use "white" toilets or beaches, marry whites, live in whites-only areas or even be there without a "pass." Blacks critically injured in car accidents were left to bleed to death if there was no "black" ambulance to rush them to a "black" hospital. "White" hospitals were prohibited from saving their lives.

In assessing the accusation that Israel pursues apartheid policies, which are by definition primarily about race or ethnicity, it is important first to distinguish between the situations in Israel, where Arabs are citizens, and in West Bank areas that remain under Israeli control in the absence of a peace agreement.

In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute: "Inhumane acts ... committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime." Israeli Arabs -- 20 percent of Israel's population -- vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.

Goldstone doesn't let Israel off the hook entirely (and appropriately), rightly explaining that "there is more de facto separation between Jewish and Arab populations than Israelis should accept." But Goldstone gives adequate deference to the complexity of life in the West Bank, mentioning the roads and security fences in their proper context, and even arms Israel with the right of self-defense, something his Gaza report greatly undermined.

But until there is a two-state peace, or at least as long as Israel's citizens remain under threat of attacks from the West Bank and Gaza, Israel will see roadblocks and similar measures as necessary for self-defense, even as Palestinians feel oppressed. As things stand, attacks from one side are met by counterattacks from the other. And the deep disputes, claims and counterclaims are only hardened when the offensive analogy of "apartheid" is invoked.