JERUSALEM, Feb 12 (Reuters) - The damage done to Israel's image by allegations of Gaza war crimes in a United Nations report has ignited a battle between right and left-wing advocacy groups over freedom of expression in the Jewish state.
An Israeli civil rights group is accused of aiding South African jurist Richard Goldstone's inquiry into the war last year, and there are calls for an investigation by parliament.
Naomi Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund which backs civil rights groups, has been vilified by rightists who accuse her of aiding Goldstone, a Jew who has been called a 'traitor'.
In an interview with Reuters, Chazan said she saw a 'very, very dangerous process' under way in Israel, where human rights groups such as hers were increasingly targeted for criticism.
'The very pillars of democratic society are being assailed and we have to be very concerned about that,' said the former left-wing Meretz party legislator.
Goldstone's report found evidence of war crimes by both Israel and Hamas Islamists in the three-week Israeli offensive in Gaza, in which over 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
But it put most of the blame on Israel, stoking worldwide criticism of the Jewish state's behaviour in the war. Israel has dismissed the report as biased and supporters are lashing out at left-wing groups who had a role in Goldstone's work.
The right-wing group Im Tirtzu (the name means If You Will It in Hebrew -- a Zionist motto) said in newspaper and billboard ads that 90 percent of negative references to Israel in the U.N. report were from groups funded by Chazan's organisation.
Left-wing activists in Israel and abroad, joined by New York-based Human Rights Watch, have rallied behind Chazan, denouncing the criticism of her and the arrests of peace activists at recent protests as 'an affront to democracy.'
AFRAID OF CRITICISM?
The strength of the criticism has also reinforced concerns for supporters of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians that future Israeli governments may struggle to secure a consensus for trading land for peace.
The right wing is well represented in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.
Peace talks are on hold over disputes about the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Right and left-wing Israelis have been arguing for decades for and against withdrawing from occupied Palestinian land for peace, but the debate has turned nastier, with questions now raised about the very legitimacy of criticising the government.
Erez Tadmor, a director of Im Tirtzu, denied any intent to muzzle critics and countered that 'the ones seeking to limit free speech are the anti-Zionist groups who think they can criticise everyone but be immune to criticism themselves'.
Chazan called his charges 'ridiculous' and 'pernicious'. She says Israeli human rights groups provided less than 15 percent of the content for Goldstone's report. Leftists reject charges that they are 'anti-Zionist', saying it is right-wing opposition to a peace with the Arabs that threatens the Zionist dream.
The attacks against her, Chazan said, were part of 'a struggle for the soul of Israel' between liberal Israelis and a growing religious and pro-Jewish settler right wing opposed to a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
'This attack on me personally is another very sophisticated way of preventing what should have been done years ago, creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel,' Chazan said.
Parliament this week rejected a motion to investigate the New Israel Fund, and the media have largely ignored the dispute. But it has had an impact with Jews abroad who provide funds.
A separate Israeli legislative probe has been launched into funding for non-government groups, seen as targeting human rights organisations in particular. Chazan said she would insist that investigators also look at rightist finances.
The English-language Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, has cancelled Chazan's biweekly column.
Chazan criticised the Israeli government's refusal to cooperate with Goldstone and said Israel should launch its own investigation into the Gaza war, just as it has scrutinised the results of other conflicts since 1973.
'We need it not only for the world, we need it for ourselves. If you don't identify your mistakes and correct them, you're going to repeat them,' Chazan said. 'Democratic societies that don't check themselves don't last long.'