The inquiry was a hot potato. The United Nations resolution ordering it focused on alleged "grave violations" by Israel, but not on rocket fire by Palestinian militants. Several experts invited to serve on the U.N. Human Rights Council's fact-finding mission had refused because they considered the mandate one-sided, a U.N. official said.
Goldstone, a Jew, insisted on a balanced approach. His proposal: Talk to the victims. All the victims.
When his appointment to lead the mission was announced Friday, it was clear that he had taken the job on his terms.
"I decided to accept it because of my deep concern for peace in the Middle East and my deep concern for victims on all sides in the Middle East," he said at a news conference in Geneva.
The mission, he and U.N. officials said, would examine abuses on both sides of the 22-day conflict.
Goldstone's appointment poses an immediate policy question for Israel's new government. Israel considers the 47-member council incorrigibly biased and has refused to take part in some of its previous inquiries, including one led by Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took office last week, is acutely aware of Israel's isolation over the Gaza conflict and has assured Western leaders that his government, though dominated by right-wing parties, is eager to work with them on peace efforts in the Middle East.
Goldstone's international reputation for fairness and balance, more than the fact that he is Jewish, could make it awkward for Israel to shut him out.
"He's a person of impeccable integrity," said South African lawyer Mervyn Smith, who has known Goldstone for 25 years and is a former president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. "The fact that he's Jewish is not going to influence him one way or another."
Yuval Shany, director of the Minerva Center for Human Rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he was surprised by the appointment. He said the U.N. council, dominated by Arab, African and Asian countries, usually sends outspoken critics of Israel to lead such inquiries.
"Clearly this is not the case here, because Richard Goldstone is a fair-minded jurist, and I don't think anyone can say he's hostile to Israel in any way," Shany said.
For most of his adult life, Goldstone, 70, has delved into victimhood. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, he did not make black friends until he went to a university. He hated what apartheid did to them, treating them as lesser mortals, forcing them to carry passes and live in segregated townships.
As a South African judge during the apartheid era, his legal decisions helped unravel some of apartheid's most insidious effects, including the Group Areas Act, which made it illegal for blacks, Asians and mixed-race people to live in the best areas, which were designated whites-only.
As chief prosecutor for the war crimes tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, he saw the worst of human crimes. He is on the boards of Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch and served as chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand. He is also a visiting professor at Harvard University.
In interviews, he is as tactful and bland as a diplomat. But beneath his calm, almost deadpan delivery, Goldstone conceals a passion for justice for victims.
"What moves me is the effect that justice has on victims. It's really the victims who are the customers, or should be. They're often forgotten. And victims are craving for that public acknowledgment of their victimhood, what happened to them," Goldstone said in an interview with leadel.net, a video portal.
In the Gaza assault, which ended Jan. 18, both sides claimed to be the victim.
Israel said it was fighting to halt rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas and other militant groups that had terrorized its border communities for years. Palestinians said Israel used indiscriminate force and group punishment in its attempts to kill Hamas fighters and destroy weapons caches in Gaza, a densely populated enclave of 1.5 million people.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights lists 1,417 people, including 926 civilians, it says were killed in the conflict. Israel has put the Palestinian death toll at 1,116 -- 295 of them civilians. Thirteen Israelis were killed in the conflict.
Goldstone said his team would investigate "all violations of international humanitarian law" before, during and after the Israeli assault.
"It's in the interest of the victims," he said. "It brings acknowledgment of what happened to them. It can assist in the healing process. I would hope it's in the interests of all the political actors too."
Israeli officials are not convinced by those assurances of evenhandedness.
"They can make statements that sound a little soothing, but legally the mandate is what's in the resolution," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "And the resolution prevents them to even hint at the possibility of some breach by Hamas."
"This is almost a no-win situation for Israel," said another official, who thinks the government might bar Goldstone and his team from Israel and Gaza. A decision will be made in the coming weeks as the new government gets organized, he said.
Hamas offered conflicting responses to the fact-finding team. Yousef Rezka, an advisor to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said the team would receive "complete cooperation" from government officials in Gaza.
But Ayman Taha, a senior Hamas official, said there had been no decision. He told Al Arabiya television that the mission was biased "since its chairman is Jewish and . . . will no doubt side with the Zionist enemy."