by Benjamin Pogrund
It’s fashionable these days in South Africa to offer the country as an exemplar for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “We created a unitary state and so must you,” they say. The argument is that blacks were oppressed under apartheid, and Palestinians are oppressed by Israel, so the same solution applies to both situations.
An Israeli visitor stands to be challenged as to why the Jews want their own state instead of joining in a single state with the Palestinians. Palestinian suffering is identified with what was suffered under apartheid. The general outlook of uncritical support for the Palestinians and unbridled hostility towards Israel is articulated by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its allies, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party. They no doubt reflect much popular feeling in denouncing Israel as the “apartheid regime,” and they are increasingly urging stern action — boycotts, disinvestment and breaking off diplomatic relations. Yet despite the vehemence of their attacks, these organizations do not explicitly call for a one-state solution.
The 40th anniversary of the Six Day War in June was marked by demonstrations against Israel as well as heated exchanges of views in articles and letters in newspapers. Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils played a leading part in this: He has become a frequent critic of Israel. He is an old-style Communist who stuck with the party despite the revelations of Stalinist horrors, the Hungarian and East German uprisings and the final collapse of the system. In recent years he has said that he has rediscovered his identity as a Jew; however, the South African Jewish community wants nothing to do with him. In one letter to the editor, he referred to the “bloody establishment of the Zionist state” and said there was “no historical or moral basis for the Zionist claim to an ethnic Jewish state on all the land of the former mandate territory” (Business Day, June 13, 2007). If this seems to imply a denial of the right of Israel to exist, he shied away from it by concluding with a call for national self-determination for the Palestinians — “and acceptance of two independent, sovereign states alongside each other.”
Kasrils often bases his condemnation of Israel on alleged historical events, as he did in writing about the Six Day War, which he said was Israel’s fault. But the noted Israeli historian Benny Morris scoffed at him, saying in a letter that Kasrils “uses history to advance a political agenda. The problem is that his history is skewed; factual errors piled on top of ideologically-motivated distortions. The outcome is lamentable” (Cape Times, June 18, 2007).
The outright public rejection of two states comes from Muslim organizations and individuals. It also regularly appears in the press through a veteran journalist, Allister Sparks. He writes about the “fantasy” of the two-state solution, and in a recent column, asked Jews: “… if I, as a white South African can live in a secular, nonracial state with a black majority and feel perfectly secure in my own identity, can you not do the same in Israel?” (Cape Times, June 13, 2007) The answer to that, of course, is that he does not understand Jewish history and has no insight into the psyche of Israeli Jews. It led to Milton Shain, professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, writing that Sparks’ views “can be written off as provocative journalese or simple myopia … he is blind to the differences between the two cases” (Cape Times, June 19, 2007).
Shain puts his finger on it. South African espousal of a single state is due to faulty information and misunderstanding, whether from simple lack of knowledge and/or built-in prejudice against the mere existence of a Jewish state. In addition to Kasrils and Sparks there is plentiful evidence of this, such as the Communist Party which, while excoriating the Israeli occupation, is evidently unaware that Jordan occupied the West Bank until June 1967. It also claims that Israel “was the biggest friend and collaborator with the apartheid regime” (South African Communist Party General Secretary Blade Nzimande, Umsebenzi Online, June 6, 2007). A friend, regrettably yes, as is well known, but bigger than Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, which all supplied oil in defiance of international boycotts? And what of the United Kingdom, France, the United States and virtually every country in the world that traded with apartheid South Africa? Or there is this fevered writing in Islamic Focus magazine: “The day that Nelson Mandela was released [in February 1990] was probably one of the last times that Palestinians enjoyed the simple pleasure of a sweet treat called baklava. They sang and rejoiced in the narrow, dusty streets …” (Shabnam Mohamed, “There’s something different about this Nakba,” Islamic Focus, Pretoria, Issue 8, June 2007, p. 3).
Differences Outweigh Similarities
For a more informed and informative look at the issue, one can turn to an authoritative source: a book published in 2005 by two Canadians, Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley, who are specialists on South Africa. In Seeking Mandela: Peacemaking Between Israelis and Palestinians* they conclude that the South Africa = Israel and Palestine assertion does not offer a realistic way forward. To explain this, they examine six “crucial realms”:
1) Economy: Blacks and whites in South Africa were economically interdependent. The growth of politicized trade unions enabled blacks to attack apartheid through industrial action such as strikes and consumer boycotts. In contrast, Palestinians do not have this power because Israel barely depends on Palestinian labor. Two economies exist more or less side by side. Moreover, Israel
uses closure as collective punishment, whereas South Africa’s whites were too dependent on black labor to be able to do this.
2) Religion: Christianity in South Africa was a “common bond to assail and de-legitimize” apartheid. In contrast, Judaism and Islam compete for sovereignty. This divide has, of course, grown sharper and wider through the rise of Hamas and its Islamist policies. On the Jewish side, religiously motivated settlers and ultra-Orthodox believers cannot be as easily marginalized as were extremists among white Afrikaners.
|Rania Akel (Desert Generation)|
3) Third-party intervention: Both the main players in South Africa, the ANC and the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, avoided third-party intervention in their negotiations. In contrast, an Israeli-Palestinian agreement “depends heavily” on U.S. policy that strongly supports Israel. “Sanctions (divestment and trade boycotts) are generally overrated in triggering South African change,” they say. “Only loan refusals and, to a lesser extent, moral ostracism, impacted significantly on the apartheid government. Such action against Israel by the West is inconceivable at present.” Israelis also have the benefit of a supportive diaspora, whereas Afrikaners faced a near-unanimously hostile world.
4) Political culture: “Much more personal interaction in a vertical-status hierarchy shaped South African race relations, compared with the more horizontal social distance between Jews and Palestinians … Moral erosion of the apartheid stance among the ruling elite in South Africa contrasts with moral myopia in Israel … Both sides in the Middle East display a collective sense of victimhood.” South Africa was “a pariah state that lacked the legitimacy of Israel outside the Arab and Muslim world.”
5) Violence: Suicide was never used as a weapon, and martyrdom was never celebrated during the South African anti-apartheid struggle. In contrast, the tactics of the second intifada have been “counter-productive,” and “[t]he attacks on civilians unify Israeli public opinion on security and also destroy the social fabric of Palestinian society.” To which can be added that, when the ANC decided in 1961 to switch to armed resistance, it adopted a policy that there would be no killing of white civilians. The decision was partly to do with the belief in Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, and was partly strategic: The ANC accepted that if it targeted white civilians it would confirm their fears of being swept into the sea by the black majority and this would harden their resolve to hold on to power. The ANC’s approach was proved correct: Only a few attacks on whites took place over the decades, and this was a significant factor in persuading whites that it was safe to end apartheid.
6) Leadership: Negotiations in South Africa were facilitated by the existence of cohesive and credible leaders. They could obtain popular mandates and sell a controversial compromise to their peoples. In contrast, the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are fragmented.
It can indeed be said that South Africa was blessed by leaders who fought for freedom without sowing hatred and instead preached unity between black and white — such as Chief Albert Luthuli, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960, and Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, who was imprisoned, detained and banished for the last 18 years of his life. And ultimately there was Nelson Mandela, who led the way to the “miracle” of the new South Africa, and the Afrikaner leader F.W. de Klerk, who had the boldness and courage to recognize that white rule could not be sustained. Israel and Palestine lack such leaders, hence the wistful title chosen by Adam and Moodley for their book.
Their analysis leads the authors to say that “on most counts, the differences between apartheid South Africa and Israel outweigh the similarities that could facilitate transferable conditions for a negotiated compromise. Above all, opponents in South Africa finally realized that neither side could defeat the other completely without destroying the country. This perception of stalemate as a precondition for negotiating in good faith is missing in the Middle East. Peacemaking resulted in an inclusive democracy in South Africa, while territorial separation of the adversaries in two states is widely hailed as the solution in Israel and Palestine:
Such a different trajectory suggests itself because South Africa, arguably, constitutes merely a multiethnic society with many cross-cutting bonds between the legislated artificial racial groups. In Israel/Palestine, on the other hand, a truly divided society exists. The two Semitic people may look alike and even enjoy the same food. They are, however, divided by religion, language, and above all, by history and the mythologies that the "burden of history" imprints on the self-concept and collective identity of the two groups. Jews and Palestinians constitute groups competing for meaning, security, and scarce resources in a small space. (p.167)
But they go on to warn that the two-state solution is undermined by the spread of permanent Jewish settlements and security barriers on the West Bank, so that “the logic of Zionist expansionism may ultimately destroy the very idea of an exclusive Jewish state.” In the context of European and North American ethnically mixed, multicultural democracies, post-Zionists view an exclusive ethnic state as an anachronism. “However, in the Middle Eastern reality of communal hostilities and national identities, the Zionist vision is deeply rooted and more difficult to dislodge than racist supremacist illusions in South Africa. Could the Israeli public ever abandon its Zionist identity and embrace an inclusive civic nationalism of all its inhabitants?” they ask.
Adam and Moodley add another cautionary note:
A redefinition of Israel from an ethnic state with a guaranteed Jewish majority to a pluralist, multicultural democracy requires a reciprocal Arab revision of an anti-Zionist identity that frequently flows into anti-Semitic stereotyping of the worst kind. Israel’s moral legitimacy has yet to be accepted by its neighbors. As long as crude anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as the Czarist forgeries of the ‘Protocol of the Elders of Zion’ or even Holocaust denial is peddled among Islamists, the South African solution of an inclusive, tolerant common state remains a utopian vision indeed. (p.177)
While outlining similarities and even asserting that in some respects conditions are worse for the Palestinians than apartheid was for blacks, Adam and Moodley argue that similar anti-apartheid strategies may falter in the Israeli case.
Despite the differences, South Africa does offer valuable lessons in the efforts to resolve the Israel and Palestine conflict. To quote their suggestions:
* An end to violence is the outcome of negotiations but should not be a precondition for their start.
* Only a relatively unified, not a fragmented, adversary guarantees adherence to controversial compromises and prevents populist outbidding.
* Transparency and bottom-up involvement through voter education must parallel top-down leadership deals.
* Leaders who are imposed from outside are tainted and acquire legitimacy only through their own constituencies.
* Each side has to understand the problem of its partner with his or her constituency and should empower the antagonists to deal with it.
On the other hand, as they repeatedly stress, “the simplistic assumption that the South African model readily lends itself to export may actually retard necessary new solutions by clinging to visions or processes of negotiation that may not work in another context.”
A Tempting but Unrealistic Model
When all is said and done, it is tempting to go along with the notion of a single state. The South African “miracle” is a powerful image. Imagine Jews and Arabs living together on a tiny piece of land, a shared society of equals with one government; it would end their long and bitter conflict and fulfill the ideal of a united world in which people live together in amity and peace.
However, “one size fits all” does not always apply in our imperfect world: It did not work in India-Pakistan in 1948, or in the later breakaway by Bangladesh from Pakistan. It did not work in the Soviet Union, whose different peoples chose to go their separate ways after the collapse of Communism. It did not work in the former Yugoslavia, with tragic results. It is not working in Sri Lanka, or Sudan, or Ethiopia, or Morocco or sundry other places with variable levels of discontent, division, strife and suffering among people who want to be apart from one another.
Nor is a single state possible, given the history and emotions of where we are. Both the blessings and the cruelty of historical experience have shaped Israelis and Palestinians. The mistrust and rejection which separate them are far more intense than what divided white and black in South Africa. And at the root of it all, Israeli Jews will not forgo their Jewish state. On no account will they submerge themselves in a single state in which demography will lose them their majority and control. To them it would be national suicide, and it’s not going to happen.
True, the spread of settlements on the West Bank brings into question the viability of a Palestinian state and could point to the inevitability of a single state. But if that were ever to come about, it would be at the cost of democracy and Jewish values, because it would be a state in which Palestinians would be oppressed semi- or non-citizens. Palestinians would never accept that, and we would all be doomed to perpetual war. The point of no return towards this has not yet been reached and, one hopes, never will be. Meanwhile, broad Israeli-Palestinian agreement remains for a two-state solution. Israel and Palestine will not be going along the South African road.
* Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley, Seeking Mandela: Peacemaking Between Israelis and Palestinians.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.