The UN General Assembly decided last week to set up an international mechanism for gathering evidence and preparing legal cases against those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria since the start of that country’s civil war six years ago. The decision, which passed by a wide margin, won’t save the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Assad regime, nor will it return the millions of refugees to their homes. But it makes clear that the international community intends to demand an accounting of those responsible for the mass murders and expulsions.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister, decided that Israel wouldn’t participate in the vote. The same Netanyahu who is attacking the international community and UN institutions for “doing nothing” to stop the slaughter in Syria, while focusing exclusively on Israel instead, instructed the Israeli embassy not to take any position on the responsibility borne by the murderers right across the border.
How can it be that Netanyahu, that warrior for justice, who is second to none in his concern over the international community’s hypocrisy, dodged a debate on the criminal responsibility of the mass murderers over the border? Does the man who constantly warns of a second Holocaust simply not care about the Syrians’ horrific suffering? Or were there other reasons for his embarrassing flight from the UN vote?
During internal discussions in Jerusalem, two fears were raised. First, that an Israeli vote in favor of the resolution would undermine its relations with Russia, whose army is fighting alongside the Assad regime and whose leader has given Syrian President Bashar Assad diplomatic backing. When Vladimir Putin’s radar and anti-aircraft missiles can track every Israeli air force flight in the north, it’s not a good idea to quarrel with Moscow.
The second fear was of setting a procedural precedent that would make it easier to pass resolutions against Israel in international institutions, and perhaps even to launch investigations and legal proceedings against Israelis. After all, Netanyahu himself has said that the bill to legalize illegal settlement outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land could result in Israeli leaders being hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The Foreign Ministry’s professional staff recommended voting for the resolution despite these fears, in order to voice a proper Israeli moral position. But Netanyahu rejected their advice.
At the moment of truth, Netanyahu decided to stand with Assad, the mass murderer, and his Iranian, Lebanese and Russian backers rather than with their victims. The prime minister’s morality is roused only when the international community objects to Israeli settlements in the territories. Then it’s possible, as a rhetorical gimmick, to remind the UN of the atrocities in Syria and “reveal its true face.”
But when the responsibility rests in his hands, he acts exactly like all those other statesmen who stood on the sidelines and kept mum in the face of crimes against humanity for the sake of their own belligerent interests. So next time Netanyahu condemns those hypocrites at the United Nations, he ought to look in the mirror.