Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Sunday, January 9, 2011

South Africa and Israel

In recent years it has become almost compulsory for those on the Left to speak of Israel in terms of either apartheid or South Africa or both. This has reached the point where Jimmy Carter, who ran for president as a conservative Evangelical Christian, entitled his book Palestine: Peace or Apartheid. Carter admitted that he was deliberately attempting to be provocative; it's a pity that he was also not analytical as he nowhere in the book explains what he means by the title. In interviews he explained that he was referring to the Palestinian territories and not to Israel. In this case the natural comparison would be with South West Africa/Namibia, the former German territory conquered by South Africa in World War I, a defensive war on Britain's part. After the war South Africa was awarded a class C mandate from the League of Nations, which entitled South Africa to rule the territory as part of its own territory as long as it provided regular reports to the League. After the League's demise in 1946, the UN began to challenge South Africa's application of apartheid to South West Africa on behalf of Ethiopia and Liberia. Eventually in the 1970s the UN and the International Court in the Hague revoked the mandate. After a twenty-plus-year war of liberation by SWAPO, backed by Angola and Cuba, Pretoria finally agreed to withdraw from the territory in December 1988. But SWAPO never said that it would use Namibia as a springboard from which to liberate South Africa. And in any case there are hundreds of miles of barren desert wasteland between the border and South Africa's closest major cities. This is a major difference with Israel/West Bank where the PLO and Hamas have both spoken of liberating all of Israel and Israel's capital--the city in which its government is located--is on the border of the West Bank with half of the city claimed by the Palestinians.

In my opinion there are three valid bases on which to compare Israel with South Africa:

1) both had similar regional defense policies stemming from a similar geopolitical situation of being isolated siege societies;
2) both had a system of migratory labor from conquered territories that were/are economically integrated into the economy of the labor-requesting country;
3) both had major roles for military politicians in elected politics (see my previous post on this subject).

Jerusalem developed a policy of raiding and occupying neighboring countries or territories and supporting ethnic minorities in these countries in order to survive in the region. This strategy was then copied, with some advice from Israel, by South Africa in the period from 1975 to 1989 when P.W. Botha was the leader of South Africa. Israel first developed this strategy under David Ben-Gurion in the mid-1950s from 1953 to 1956 and applied it to Egyptian-ruled Gaza and the Jordanian West Bank as well as Syria. Then from 1972 to 2000 this strategy was applied in Lebanon. And Israel has over the decades supported rebels in Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq while allying itself with non-Arab countries like Iran and Turkey.

South Africa applied a similar strategy to Southern Africa under Botha. Pretoria first intervened in the Angolan civil war on behalf of the U.S. and France in October 1975. Then in 1978 Pretoria copied the Rhodesians and began raiding SWAPO base camps in Angola. Finally in 1981 South Africa invaded and occupied southern Angola. There are many parallels between Israel's Lebanon policy and South Africa's Angolan policy. The SADF also carried out against SWAPO and ANC base camps in Zambia, Mozambique, and Lesotho. Pretoria supported rebel movements in Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

The main strategic lesson that comes from all of this activity over fifteen years is that at the end of the day Pretoria had to deal with the political problems stemming from apartheid and white minority rule. All its military activities did was to buy it time to negotiate with the ANC in a situation that was favorable to Pretoria--after Angola had expelled the ANC's armed wing from its territory and after the Cold War had ended. When applied to the Middle East this means that Israel after regularly beating the Arab armies will still have to deal with the Palestinian problem. All the IDF can do is buy it time to do this under favorable circumstances. But this lesson should have been obvious without reference to South Africa in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon thought that he could redesign the politics of the region by defeating the PLO and Syria in Lebanon. The PLO, after its defeat by the IDF and a Syrian-sponsored rebellion within Fatah, was forced to withdraw completely from Lebanon in 1982-83 and no longer had a viable military option. Yet Israel soon found that there was no more moderate Palestinian negotiating partner. The main effect of the war (besides sending Sharon into political obscurity for 15 years) was to possibly speed up the PLO's thinking in regard to negotiating with Israel.

Since 1967 Israel had reshaped its economy to become dependent on Palestinian manual labor in the construction and agricultural sectors among others. It was only with the serious Islamist terror of the mid-1990s that Israel had second thoughts about the utility of this labor source. Israel began importing labor from Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe to replace many of the Palestinian workers who were increasingly seen as potential terrorists. Thus, this common feature is increasingly an historical one.

As mentioned in my previous post, Israel's class of military politicians can most usefully be compared to the Indian-fighter politicians of the antebellum period in America and to the Union of South Africa. From 1840-60 the United States had a three-party system in the North (the South only developed a three-party system from 1854-57). In antebellum America as in Israel the military politicians were native-fighter politicians who had fought the indigenous population and this fighting continued into the late 1850s in Florida and Texas. But the United States has never had coalition governments. By contrast South Africa had two two-party coalition governments in the Union period (1924-29, 1933-34). But the two governments were so stable that in the first instance the National Party stole the electorate of the Labour Party and in the second merged with the South Africa Party to form the United Party. And its military politicians were not native-fighter politicians during this period and the African population was quiescent then. Also, I would argue that the Whigs were closer to the Israeli Labor Party than was the United Party for purposes of comparison. The United States was also very corrupt in the 1840s and 1850s like Israel today (by Western standards) and from 1846-50 had a debate over occupied territories. And South Africa completely lacked a liberal party during this period. Although with the collapse of Meretz this last point is less relevant. But overall, I would argue that the United States of the 1850s is marginally a better case for comparison with contemporary Israel than was the Union of South Africa. Apartheid South Africa is useful for comparing with Israel at the regional level, but not at the internal level.

The main problem with comparing Israel and South Africa is that although the latter has many of the features of the former they are spread out over several time periods. The Boer republics had many African-fighter politicians and an ongoing conflict with the native population. The Union of South Africa had a genuine multiparty system with competitive white political parties. And apartheid South Africa had an interventionist regional defense policy. But South Africa never had these three major features at the same time.  Apartheid

South Africa's main utility to analysts of Israeli politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as a warning of the international isolation that is the fate of a racially-European population that rules a territory by force in which it is a minority. This is much more relevant for Israel's future than for its present.

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