By Peter Beinart / The Forward
January 4, 2017
In the West Bank, Israel is not the “one true democracy in the Middle East.” It is not a democracy at all. It is not a democracy because Palestinians — who comprise the vast majority of the West Bank’s inhabitants — cannot vote for the government that controls their lives: the government of Israel. . . . If Israel really were a democracy in the West Bank, and millions of West Bank Palestinians could vote in Israeli elections, Netanyahu wouldn’t be Israel’s prime minister.
Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued two public statements. When the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution criticizing settlements, Netanyahu attacked it for not condemning Syria. When Secretary of State John Kerry defended the Obama administration’s decision to let the resolution pass, Netanyahu attacked him for not sufficiently condemning the Palestinians.
In both responses, the Israeli leader illustrated George Orwell’s famous insight: The abuse of human beings starts with the abuse of language.
“At a time when the Security Council does nothing to stop the slaughter of half a million people in Syria,” Netanyahu declared after the UN vote, “it disgracefully gangs up on the one true democracy in the Middle East, Israel.”
The first clause is a non-sequitur. Yes, Syrians in Aleppo and elsewhere are suffering more than Palestinians in the West Bank. Yes, the UN should be doing more to relieve their plight. But the test of whether Israeli settlement policy deserves international condemnation is whether Israeli settlement policy is morally wrong, not whether other governments deserve condemnation more.
By Netanyahu’s logic, the UN shouldn’t condemn Bashar al Assad’s crimes either. After all, only 500,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war; ten times that many have died from violence in Congo. So unless the UN criticizes Congo’s leaders ten times as often, Assad can claim to be the victim of a double standard, too.
Netanyahu’s logic would also have ensnared the American Jewish organizations that in the 1970s protested the Soviet Union’s refusal to let Jews emigrate. After all, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Idi Amin in Uganda were committing far worse human rights abuses at the same time. Why didn’t Jewish groups focus on those?
When it comes to Syria, there’s reason to doubt Netanyahu’s sincerity. Just days after denouncing the UN for its inaction there, he reportedly instructed Israeli diplomats to skip a vote on creating a UN commission to gather evidence of Syrian war crimes because he feared alienating Vladimir Putin. But regardless, the UN’s action or inaction on Syria doesn’t excuse Israeli settlement policy. A lesser evil is still evil.