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

Friday, September 30, 2011

Netanyahu: A Tale of Two Bothas

Because of the very small number of whites who immigrated to the southern tip of Africa some three centuries ago, just as with Latinos in the Americas, there is a limited number of surnames among Afrikaners in South Africa today. One of the most important in politics in the late twentieth century was Botha. In the 1980s there were two Bothas in the cabinet--State President P.W. Botha and Foreign Minister Roelef "Pik" Botha--and the head of the National Party in Natal was Stoffel Botha. Reporters and politicians alike had to be careful to specify which Botha they were talking about. In the 1978 contest for National Party leader Pik and P.W. faced off with another candidate, Connie Mulder. Pik emerged as the favorite of all races nationally (we are talking about the head of the National Party not the country's leader in a majority rule election), while P.W. won the election because of the backing of the powerful Cape Province caucus.

Pik was a lawyer who had entered the diplomatic service out of law school. In the mid-1970s he was simultaneously ambassador to Washington and ambassador to the UN at a time when there was serious discussion of expelling South Africa permanently from that body. Pik was popular both because he told the world to mind its own business and leave South Africa alone and because he spoke out in favor of eliminating at least some of the race discrimination involved in apartheid. During the 1980s it was his job to negotiate with the West over the occupation of Namibia and buy time for South Africa to reform internally.

P.W. (Pieter Willem) Botha was a limited reformer in terms of the National Party who had been defense minister from 1966 to 1978. Before that he had been a professional National Party activist and the longest serving member of parliament. He advocated a policy of punishing South Africa's external enemies with cross border raids and invasions. Internally he brokered a new constitution that gave voting rights and limited powers to the mixed-race "colored" population in the Cape and the Transvaal (descendants of whites, Indonesians, and the local Khoisan population) and the Indian population in Natal. When elections were held in 1984 about 85 percent of Indians and coloreds didn't bother to vote as they considered the power insufficient to warrant antagonizing the African majority who were left out. P.W. also favored limited reforms in "petty apartheid" or the type of discrimination that was common in the American South before and during the Civil Rights Era.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blends the characteristics of both the Bothas. Like P.W. he was from a distinguished political family. His father had been the editor of the Revisionist Party newspaper in Palestine and the Herut Party paper before moving to America to pursue an academic career. After serving in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit in the late 1960s, Netanyahu returned to the U.S. where he had grown up to study business. He then started a business career in sales. Afterwards he served as ambassador to the UN in the late 1980s after having apprenticed under Moshe Arens, a man thought to be a future prime minister. When Arens abruptly resigned from politics in 1992 along with Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu was elected leader of the Likud. 

During the 1990s and 2000s his P.W. side came out. He was opposed to the Oslo process and wrote a famous book arguing the importance of retaining the West Bank to ensure Israeli security. As prime minister from 1996 to 1999 he attempted to fulfill the commitments he inherited from the Labor government before him while not making any new territorial sacrifices to satisfy the Palestinians. After he pledged to withdraw from a further 13 percent of the West Bank in October 1998, his coalition revolted and his government collapsed. He lost the subsequent election to his former army commander, Ehud Barak, in May 1999. Netanyahu then took a break from politics and made money while Ariel Sharon took over control of the Likud. About three years later he returned as foreign minister under Sharon and then became finance minister. In 2005 he resigned from the government in protest over Sharon's disengagement from Gaza.

After Sharon quit the Likud in November 2005, Netanyahu became the new party leader. He became opposition leader while the Kadima-Labor coalition was in power from 2006 to early 2009. In February 2009 he returned to power as the head of a right-wing coalition--the most rightwing since 1992. Netanyahu told reporters and foreign leaders that he had learned his lessons from his first tenure in power. But he formed a right-wing coalition rather than a centrist coalition with Kadima. In a famous speech at Bar Ilan University in June 2009 he came out in favor of a two-state solution--the first Likud leader to ever do so. But he argued that the Palestinians must first recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a condition designed to significantly reduce the chance of a two-state solution occurring. He later implemented a settlement freeze for ten  months, but the Palestinians refused to enter peace talks because the freeze did not apply to Jerusalem. 

In South Africa P.W. Botha made the fatal mistake of divorcing party leadership from the presidency after he suffered a debilitating stroke. F.W. de Klerk mounted a coup against him in the party caucus and forced him to retire. Pik Botha helped to see through the transition to majority rule but never gained the top post. In Israel it looks like Netanyahu has left his Pik Botha past behind in order to pursue power as P.W. P.W. was a reformer in white South African terms during the first half of his tenure as executive and then became frozen and leaned on the military during his second half. Maybe Netanyahu has reversed the order here? He was more rigid in the mid-1990s and more open in the second term. But because of fear of Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman he has become rigid again.  

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