What to do? Some put forward South Africa's one-man one-vote one-state as a solution: Israel must disappear, it is argued, to be replaced by a single Jewish-Arab state; all Palestinian refugees must have the right to return to this state if they want to and must have the right to reclaim property they lost in 1948.
This is a siren's voice, sounded only by ignoring realities and brushing aside the fact that South Africa and Israel/Palestine have different histories and different peoples and what has been successful for one doesn't spell success for the other. One size does not fit all.
The two contrasting stories are revealed in elementary and well-known histories: In South Africa, the goal for the majority black population was always a single, united country. From the earliest days of the struggle for freedom, the black aspiration overwhelmingly was to share the country with the white minority, and with the colored and Asian minorities, too.
This was despite the history of whites in Southern Africa. It began with the arrival of the Dutch in 1652, with the British coming later. In a classic pattern of settlers and colonialism, the whites drove into the interior and dispossessed by force the indigenous blacks of land. In 1910, the whites brought their four separate republics together to form the Union of South Africa. That geographical entity is the South Africa of today.
In 1912, black leaders started the African National Congress (ANC) - then called the Native National Congress - and began by pleading with the white rulers to grant them equal rights.
They were ignored. As time passed the begging grew more militant and became a demand. Yet, despite being rebuffed, the liberation movement, apart from a minority on the edges, never responded by trying to build unity among blacks through whipping up anti-white emotions. There were no calls to drive the whites into the sea.
That continued even after 1948, when whites voted for racial apartheid - Afrikaans for "apartness" - and imposed hundreds of discriminatory laws. And it continued unchanged even after the whites set about dismembering the country, applying a policy called "separate development."
It was a stratagem - a confidence trick - to deal with the South Africa created by history in which vast numbers of people of different colors lived side by side and the country had a single economy. Whatever the low status of blacks, they were indispensable for the economy, working on white-owned mines and farms, in factories and offices and in homes. To get around this, the white government resuscitated tribalism, using black collaborators to create about a dozen tribal mini-states. Whites, who formed about 16% of the population, kept two-thirds of the country for themselves; blacks, who were three-quarters of the people, were given about 16% of the land and many were forced to live there.
The special trick lay in stripping blacks of their South African citizenship and instead,turning them into citizens of one of the tribal so-called states - even while retaining them as workers in "white" South Africa. The tribal mini-states came to be known as Bantustans: They were used as giant reservoirs of labor, with black workers allowed out when needed.
Blacks were denied the vote. That was a basic fact of life. As blacks increasingly pressed for rights, the government resorted to ever-greater repression, including banning the ANC. In 1961 the ANC turned to armed resistance. But even then, it decided not to target white civilians - both out of a belief in Gandhian non-violence and for strategic reasons, so that whites need not fear the coming of black majority rule.
For the next three decades, that policy was adhered to: Whites in cities were hit by bombs only a few times, and the ANC was almost embarrassed by the attacks. The policy paid off: Whites accepted that their lives were not in danger and eventually yielded power. The new democratic and non-racial South Africa was born in 1994.
The modern history of Israel/Palestine is also well known. That it is totally different from South Africa is evident in what exists today. Jews have always lived here, but began to arrive in increasing numbers in the late 19th century. There was no conquest. They bought land - willing buyers from willing sellers - cultivated it and developed towns. They were inspired by Zionism, a movement of national liberation to achieve a homeland for Jews. Some argued for a single state. But the core belief consistently over the years was for a state for Jews, to provide shelter from anti-Semitic persecution and, for some, fulfilment of religious faith.
In November 1947, the United Nations agreed to partition Palestine into two states, for Jews and for Arabs. The Jews accepted it; the Arabs did not. The armies of five Arab states attacked, together with local Arab militias. The Jews won and some 700,000 Arabs fled or were driven out of their homes; 40,000 Jews were evicted from Arab areas. The Jews ended up extending their boundaries considerably and seized Arab lands, houses and possessions. More than 500 Arab villages were razed and Jewish homes were often built on the ruins or nearby.
The Arabs suffered injustice. It was the Nakba, the Catastrophe, for them. But the tragic result of conquest was not unique. In the village of Zippori in the Galilee, in one example, archaelogical excavation has revealed layer upon layer of human habitation over many centuries, one supplanting and building over the other, with Assyrian, Hellenistic, Judean, Babylonian, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader, Arab and Ottoman influences. Human behavior has been the same throughout the world.
The state of Israel's founding declaration promised to "foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants … it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex …."
Those mighty aims are not always evident in practice. The 156,000 Arabs who remained after 1948 have grown in number and total 1.2 million today, are a minority comprising 20% of the population, and they suffer discrimination of one sort or another. One reason for this can be traced to 1948, when local Arabs took part in the attempts to destroy the nascent Jewish state. After the war they remained under martial law until 1966, and some Jews still view them with suspicion. But they are Israeli citizens and, unlike the inflexibility of apartheid South Africa, change is possible and is happening. Crucially, they have the vote.
The 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are not Israelis: In the West Bank they live under Israeli occupation, and in Gaza, from which Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2005, they remain gravely restricted by Israeli control of the borders.
The economies of the two territories are not interwined with Israel's. Instead, they exist alongside it and are heavily dependent on Israel for food and goods, from breakfast cereals to baby diapers, from medicines to oil. Israeli business profits from them but could live without them.
The territories are not comparable with the Bantustans because their purpose is different. They are not intended to be reservoirs of labor. Indeed, their case is entirely opposite: For security reasons - fear of bombers and gunmen - Israel wants the Palestinians to keep out and to stay in the territories. It has drastically reduced the number of Palestinians who were previously allowed in for work; the tens of thousands a day are now a few thousand and are subject to being shut out whenever security closures are imposed on the borders. Palestinian workers in Israel have been replaced by Thais, Filipinos, Africans and others.
That this policy is devastating to the Palestinian economy is obvious. That it is undesirable and regressive for fostering friendly relations is certain. But none of this makes the territories any closer to what the Bantustans were.
The one element that does allow for comparison is control: Israel is the occupier and determines or influences the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. That, some say, is like the Bantustans. True, but so what? The same applies to China and Tibet, Russia and Chechnya, India/Pakistan and Kashmir, etc. Wherever it is and whoever does it, it is oppression. Dragging in the Bantustan tag is irrelevant sloganizing.
The non-relevance of South Africa for resolving the refugee problem is further underlined by other realities. First is the simple fact that the whole point in creating Israel was to have a state for Jews; it remains that, despite some uncertainty about its exact definition and the role of religion in it. It is a safe guess that at least 98% of Israeli Jews will not yield on this. They will not agree to destroy the Jewish state of Israel in favor of a single Israeli-Palestinian state. It would spell national suicide for them. There is not the slightest prospect, at least in the foreseeable future, that this could happen.1 The only way Jews could be made to enter into a single state would be at gunpoint and/or by killing most or all of them.
That is why UN General Assembly Resolution 194 remains unimplemented. It says that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return...." The resolution was adopted in December 1948 and remains a dead letter because the return of refugees would undermine Israel's Jewish majority. Discussions have taken place over the years about the return of some refugees for family reunification; figures such as 60,000 to 100,000 have been mentioned. Whatever might possibly be agreed in the future will not go much beyond that. On the other hand, payment of compensation is clearly still on the table. Making up for the past is also an issue in South Africa because of the many millions of blacks dispossessed during colonialism and the many more millions - blacks, coloreds and Asians - who were forced out of their homes and shops during the four apartheid decades. South Africa is creeping along in dealing with the issue. The omelette cannot be unscrambled. That apart, Zimbabwe offers terrifying evidence of how attempts to remedy the past can destroy a country.
History determines the present and the future. Arabs bitterly opposed the creation of Israel and went to war in an attempt to stifle it at birth. Both sides suffered many deaths; both sides committed atrocities. One war followed the other, initiated or provoked by one or the other side. Palestinians resorted to terrorism, attacking Israelis in their homes, in factories, on the roads, on beaches and at the Olympics. They began the modern plague of airplane hijackings. Finally, they turned to suicide bombings, trying to murder as many Israeli civilians as possible. There was nothing remotely like this in apartheid South Africa: Blacks did not do this and the psyche of the whites did not suffer the trauma and the memories of Israelis.
From the perspective of Jewish Israelis, Palestinians have spent the last 60 years seeking ever-new ways to kill them. Israeli retribution has been harsh, and preventive measures rough and far-reaching. Understandably, the gap between Israelis and Palestinians has widened. Mistrust, fear, hatred and rejection dominate the attitudes of many. Nor has there been any leadership - on either side - working to calm passions and to persuade their peoples to go along new roads. Indeed, tragically, more often than not the opposite is true.
Add to that the fact that each side speaks a different language: Jews speak Hebrew and Palestinians speak Arabic. Then there are the deep religious differences between Islam to which most Palestinians adhere and Judaism; plus the vast differences in culture in books, music and theatre; plus the entirely opposite experiences and perceptions of society, whether in the rule of law or the aggressive exposure and questioning in the media; plus the levels of economic development and technical knowledge, which are massively lopsided in favor of Israelis.
In time, these factors could no doubt be overcome and the gaps bridged; after all, Israeli Arabs, despite discrimination, are an integral part of Israel - and want to remain so. Also, the antagonism between so many Israeli Jews and West Bank and Gaza Arabs must be tackled and each will have to learn to respect the humanity of the other for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to end. Meanwhile, Israel is a state with a Jewish majority and that is what makes it fundamentally different from any multicultural single state.
Uri Avnery, the leader of Israel's Peace Bloc, made the point in a letter in the International Herald Tribune (January 20, 2009). He scoffed at the idea of one state: "It takes quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that Israelis and Palestinians will come together, serve in the same army, enact the same laws and pay the same taxes. One wonders how such a state would function."
All this is disappointing to anyone who believes in the unity of people and sincerely wants to see people coming together and living peaceably. Kosovo, Darfur, East Timor, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, the former Czechoslovakia, even the United Kingdom and a host of other places are distressing instances of people who want to get away from each other.
For Israel and Palestine, the negative realities are so powerful and inescapable that they make a nonsense of calls for a one-state solution. Palestinians themselves are formally committed to a two-state solution. The prospect of one state is so impossible that it is surprising that anyone even goes on talking about it. Perhaps those who do so actually have a hidden agenda: Their aim is not so much to end the plight of refugees and bring Israelis and Palestinians together but rather to eliminate Israel.
Holding out the prospect of a single state, South African-style, to resolve the problems of Palestinian refugees does them no service. It offers the hope of something that cannot happen. It misleads and distracts from seeking the practical solution that must be found and applied as quickly as possible.
1 Some Israelis want another sort of one-state solution, as in the concept of a Greater Israel stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Once the declared goal of the right wing, few openly propound it these days. However, the idea is being kept alive through the continued expansion of settlements beyond the Green Line with Israeli government agreement. This undermines the creation of a viable Palestinian state and the use of the West Bank as a home for refugees.