In March 2006 I was received by President Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia, as the ambassador designate of Israel to that country, in his official residence in the capital city Windhoek. The tall and elegant man with a captivating beaming smile warmly received my letter of accreditation. According to protocol we sat for a short conversation. This was the opportunity for him to set the rules for our future relations.
“Namibia regards Israel as a friendly country,” he said, reflecting his interest in our ongoing cooperation in the development of the diamond industry - off-shore mining in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the cutting and polishing enterprises mushrooming in Windhoek, with Israeli entrepreneurs and experts involved. “At the same time I need to be candid with you,” he said. “We side with the Palestinians when it comes to your conflict in the Middle East. Namibia will not be able to warm up its relations with Israel unless the occupation in Palestine comes to its end and the State of Palestine emerges in good neighborhood with Israel.”
Namibia has been run since gaining independence 25 years ago by the dominant ruling party, SWAPO, with President Pohamba at its helm. SWAPO was to Namibia what its more prominent sister party ANC was for the neighboring South Africa: a liberation movement, with close ties to another liberation movement in the Middle East, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Post-apartheid ANC and SWAPO are stating their commitment to the success of the PLO in achieving its mission as well — of gaining independence from a colonial power, in this case, Israel. That is the way they see us down there in Africa: as a colonial power, denying the indigenous Palestinians their rights to self-determination through independence. An end to the occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem along with the Gaza Strip and the establishment of a State of Palestine beyond the 1967 borders would be sufficient, according to their judgment, to remove Israel’s colonial injustice and allow a blooming friendship to flourish.
Shortly before Namibia finally gained its independence from apartheid South Africa on March 21, 1990, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison on February 11 . One could say that Namibia’s independence from South African occupation was a precursor to the final phase of liberation from the Apartheid regime in Pretoria. The two countries have maintained a relationship ever since that meets the definition of “good neighborly relations” and could become an interesting model for Israel and Palestine, once the Palestinians gain their own independence from Israeli occupation and domination.
Military conflict is part of the Namibian narrative, both when the indigenous Nama and Herero tribes fought the German troops colonizing the country in the 1890s, as well as when the SWAPO resisted the South African occupation in the 1980s. However, the principal thrust for independence did not take its course on the battle fields of the Namib Desert, but rather on the carpeted corridors and halls of the United Nations building in New York. Multilateral diplomacy was the action of choice, rather than confronting a military a hundred times mightier on the battlefields.
The UN Security Council and Namibian Independence
The UNSC Resolution 385, unanimously adopted on January 30, 1976, expressed its “concern at South Africa’s continued illegal occupation of Namibia and its persistent refusal to comply with the resolutions and decisions of the General Assembly and the Security Council, as well as with the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice….” Furthermore, it was “Gravely concerned at the South Africa’s brutal repression of the Namibian people and its persistent violation of their human rights as well as its efforts to destroy the national unity and territorial integrity of Namibia and its aggressive military build-up in the area.”
Finally, the UNSC adopted the ultimate Resolution 435 on September 29, 1978, which opened the way for independence: “decides to establish under its authority a United Nations Transition Assistance Group…for a period of 12 months in order to assist his Special Representative to carry out the mandate conferred upon him by the SC…to ensure the early independence of Namibia through free elections under the supervision and control of the UN.”
The UN Transitional Assisting Group was a peacekeeping force deployed in Namibia between April 1989 and March 1990. Its ability to stand up to its task was challenged several times in the course of that year, but the end result was positive: South African troops left Namibia, elections were conducted successfully and the country which was declared independent in the UN actually gained its statehood.
Applying the lessons of Namibia to Palestine
It is obvious that one cannot “cut and paste” the case for Namibia and apply it in Palestine. There is, however, food for thought: Can we not deconstruct the Namibian case and adapt components of it for a new approach in the case of Palestine?
There are stark contrasts between the two cases: First, Namibia gained its independence from an occupying power that had gradually lost its horizon and was already deeply involved in negotiations which were heading for the profound transformation of South Africa. That is definitely not the case with Israel. Secondly, the international diplomatic environment that prevailed in the early 1990s as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union is not at all comparable to the diplomatic environment of today. With the Cold War over, the United States played a decisive role in driving the Namibian quest for independence against the will of its former Cold War ally South Africa and its manifestations in Africa. Israel enjoys solid American support, and it is difficult to see how the U.S. can get involved in securing Palestinian independence in the face of Israeli objections.
A Palestinian attempt to gain the support of the UN Security Council at the very last moment in December 2014 failed due to American and Israeli leverage applied behind the scenes, which denied the Jordanian draft resolution the necessary nine votes. It is suggested that, had the Palestinians succeeded in garnering the nine votes, the U.S. would have vetoed it. However, the text of the resolution in no way contradicted American positions on Middle East issues, and was aimed at the framing of a process which would lead to the termination of occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem by means of negotiations between the two protagonists and with the support of the neighboring Arab countries in line with the Arab Peace Initiative.
After the results of the Israeli elections became clear, the Palestinians resolved to renew their efforts to gain UNSC support for a resolution declaring the West Bank and East Jerusalem an occupied territory, and a timeframe of two years for a negotiated settlement to be signed and ready for implementation. It is not clear what position the U.S. will take on that. It is clear that the current tension between Washington and Jerusalem is unprecedented. Would the U.S. opt to change its voting pattern in the UN? That change, which occurred in the case of Namibia in early 1990, could also open the way for a breakthrough in the Middle East, on a conflict that has been bleeding now for over half a century.
The Differences between Namibia and Palestine
The differences between Namibia and Palestine are obvious. The first is vast in geographical area (40 times the size of Israel) and sparsely populated. The second is not even the size of Crete, with its 4 million inhabitants. Israel has no UN mandate to rule the West Bank. It seized it in the course of a war. The Palestinians accepted the principle of bilateral negotiations as a means to gain independence (the Oslo Peace Process) and in the meantime run an administration with limited autonomy over part of the territory.
In the wake of the 1967 war, which ended with Israel occupying East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the UNSC adopted resolution 242 on November 22 of that year, which stipulates withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from territories occupied in the course of that war and negotiations for peace and regional security. This resolution was never implemented, due to a variety of reasons for which the two sides and regional powers should take responsibility. In the course of time, Israel settled more than half a million Israelis in East Jerusalem and in settlements on the West Bank. Namibia never posed a security threat to South Africa itself. It was used as a buffer against Cuban and ANC guerrilla forces based in Angola, to the north of Namibia. In our case, all sides to the conflict agree that any peace deal will require a rigorous security arrangement enabling Israel to maintain its security in spite of the transfer and loss of direct control of the West Bank. As for addressing the settlements challenge, there is a large civilian constituency (though not government) that acknowledges the fact that agreed swaps based on the 1967 line will be necessary in order to accommodate the demographic reality resulting from the massive Israeli settlements in the area. South Africa did encourage its citizens to migrate and settle in Namibia, but in exponentially smaller numbers. The border between the two countries follows the flow of the Orange River, thus removing any serious dispute over the demarcation of the line dividing one country from the other.
The Kerry Initiative to renew the peace process pursuing a final status agreement between the Palestinians and Israel, launched in July 2013 and aborted in April 2014, marks the last attempt to pick up where the Oslo Process left off and revive negotiations. Being stranded with no agreed Plan B in sight left the area vulnerable to violence. In June 2014 three Jewish students were abducted and murdered by Palestinian terrorists south of Bethlehem. This event ignited an escalation which led to the eruption of war with Gaza, leaving thousands dead and horrific damage.
How the UN Security Council Could Make a Difference
Here is the question: Are we going to see yet another attempt to stick to the orthodoxy of bilateralism, with the two protagonists entering the negotiation room in the company of the American facilitator only, leaving everyone else waiting outside? This is not going to work. We have been here before. It will not work because one side has nothing to offer and the other does not want to participate in this process in the first place. Another attempt will leave the process in shambles and a dangerously unstable climate in its wake. The question we pose is: Is it not high time for a change? For a multilateral process to be examined and adapted, replacing the obsolete bilateral methodology of negotiations?
Could the UN Security Council make the difference? Would the U.S. find in it a comfortable space for a newly designed policy towards the peace process in the Middle East? Could we contemplate the case for Namibia as a formula for achieving peace in Palestine? What is required for such an attempt?
First, the UN Security Council needs to reiterate the fact that the territory east of the 1967 line is occupied and should be returned to its owners, the Palestinians. Such a resolution will become a powerful indication to the government of Israel and to its citizens that settlements on occupied lands are illegal and should be stopped and then rolled back.
Secondly, a UNSC resolution should frame the terms of reference for a renewed peace process, based on a rigorous time table.
Thirdly, the State of Palestine should be declared independent by the UN Security Council, and full membership in the UN General Assembly should be granted. This move will level the negotiations field, hitherto tilted in Israel’s favor in a way that has debilitated the negotiations in the first place.
Beyond these obvious steps, the idea of introducing a peacekeeping force modeled after the UN Transitional Assisting Group deployed in Namibia could be contemplated. It could serve as a buffer between Israel and Palestine in the transitional period of implementation of a peace agreement on the ground. One can think of different international bodies under which such a group could operate.
The role of the U.S. in any change of the political paradigm in the basis of any negotiations is crucial. Washington needs to reset its policy towards our conflict, based on the UNSC as the engine for change.
Relations between Namibia and South Africa today are exemplary. So should be the relations between Israel and Palestine, once the conflict is resolved on the basis of “end of occupation” through agreement and the principle of “two states for two peoples” as stipulated in UNSC Resolution 242. We could share a good neighborhood, as suggested by President Pohamba of Namibia, when receiving me in Windhoek.