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, October 28, 2011

Does trauma inhibit Netanyahu?

During apartheid South Africa's real period of siege from 1974 to 1994 there were three white rulers: John Vorster (1966-1978), Pieter Willem Botha (1978-1989), and Frederick Willem de Klerk (1989-1994). South African political scientist Dan O'Meara, who chronicled the apartheid years of the ruling National Party in Forty Lost Years: The National Party in Power 19448-1994, wrote about John Vorster that division within the party during the first half of his rule inhibited him from making necessary reforms during the second half. From 1966 to 1970 the party was torn by an ideological division between conservatives--verkrampte--literally cramped--and moderates--verligte--literally enlightened. This led to the split in the party with a small portion of the verkrampte forming the Herstigte Nasionale Party--Reconstituted National Party--under the leadership of Albert Hertzog. Hertzog was the minister of mines and, ironically, the son of the first leader of the National Party who had ended his career in ignominy rejected by Afrikaner nationalists during World War II. Except for appointing a pair of commissions late in his period of rule Vorster made no attempts at domestic reforms. O'Meara contends that this was in order to avoid the trauma of another ideological battle and another possible split. The HNP did not elect a single MP until 1985 in a by-election and then this MP lost his seat in the next general election in 1987. By calling a snap election in 1970, Vorster largely destroyed the HNP as an election threat to the National Party.

Vorster in his final four years in office concentrated on foreign policy. In October 1974 he initiated a peace effort with Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda aimed at mediating a peaceful solution within Rhodesia. This was before the guerrillas were a serious threat to white rule there. Vorster pressured Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith to release political detainees and to attend talks on a bridge overlooking Victoria Falls in August 1975. The talks got nowhere due to intransigence on both sides. Next Vorster teamed up with Henry Kissinger to pressure Smith into publicly conceding majority rule in September 1976. But when the nationalist leaders and their Frontline State backers rejected the concessions that Kissinger made to Smith, the initiative soon floundered. Both sides then headed to a constitutional conference presided over by a British diplomat at Geneva. The conference went nowhere as Smith refused to deviate from the Kissinger plan and the nationalists refused to accept that plan.

P.W. Botha came to power on the back of a corruption scandal--Infogate, which forced Vorster to resign as prime minister and to take up the then ceremonial position of state president. Botha spent the first half of his decade in power implementing several reforms to apartheid. First, he allowed certain black urban residents to have legal citizenship within South Africa, something which had previously been abolished under apartheid. Grand apartheid created bantustans or homelands, similar to Indian reservations in North America, and all Africans inside South African were assigned to one of them based on ethnicity. Next he legalized black trade unions and allowed them to collectively bargain over work conditions and wages. Then he implemented a major constitutional reform that created two new chambers of parliament for mixed-race "colored" South Africans, most of whom lived in the Cape Province, and for Indians, most of whom lived in Natal Province. But whites retained an overall majority in parliament and in the president's council that was created to replace the senate as the upper chamber. The president's council would reconcile disputes among the three houses over what were "general affairs" and what were "own affairs."  Seeing the powerlessness of these chambers, the vast majority--some 80-85 percent--of both communities boycotted the first elections for the new parliament in August 1984. The elections also led to protests that quickly turned into riots and an internal insurrection by blacks. The reform also changed South Africa from a parliamentary system to a presidential system.

Botha then spent the second half of his time in office repressing internal unrest, silencing domestic critics, and using South Africa's military to intimidate the surrounding countries that might pose a threat. From a triumphal tour of Western Europe in the summer of 1984, Botha was soon faced with trade sanctions from the U.S. and European Economic Community in 1986. 

So far there have been four Likud leaders in power as prime ministers: Menahem Begin (1977-1983), Yitzhak Shamir (1983-84, 1986-1992), Benjamin Netanyahu (1996-1999, 2009-present), and Ariel Sharon (2001-2006). Begin and Shamir were mainly responsible for the mass settlement of the West Bank and Gaza. That effort continued on subsequent Israeli governments. Begin had the solid backing of the American Jewish community and of the Reagan administration until he invaded Lebanon in June 1982. 

From 1982 onwards Likud governments--except that of Sharon--faced some hostility from Washington over their settlement policies. Netanyahu opposed the Oslo agreements in his first term as prime minister but agreed to withdraw from territory on the West Bank under American pressure from Clinton in October 1998. As a result his coalition soon collapsed. Sharon had very good relations with George Bush as a result of American antipathy towards Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat after October 2000. Clinton blamed Arafat--rightfully in my opinion--for the collapse of the Oslo process in late 2000. Bush came into office determined to avoid Middle East mediation and to support Israel. His conservative Republican backers demanded no less and this squared with Bush's own personal preferences. Sharon, like Botha from 1984 to 1988, spent his first several years battling the Al-Aksa Intifada by reinvading the West Bank in 2002 and assassinating Palestinian terrorist leaders.  He then unexpectedly withdrew from Gaza in 2005, defying his previous political support base of settlers and forcing the Gaza settlers to evacuate. Many Israeli conservatives now regard Sharon as the ultimate traitor.

Netanyahu has proven to be more like Vorster. He has consolidated his position within his own party following the exit of Sharon and his supporters in November 2005 to form the Kadima party. Now he has spent his second term in power balancing the various parties of the Right off against one another as Vorster did with the factions in the National Party. He implemented a temporary settlement freeze in 2010, but refused to renew despite the offer of considerable bribes from Washington. With Obama preoccupied with the economic crisis in the U.S. and with the support of American conservatives, Netanyahu can easily evade any serious pressure from Washington until at least well into 2013. By then there will be new elections in Israel. Netanyahu hopes that Mahmoud Abbas will disappear as a serious political force by then, leaving only Hamas to deal with on the Palestinian side. 

If a Republican president replaces Obama in 2013 the gamble will have paid off. Or if Obama is too weak in his second term to put pressure on Israel, it will also have worked. But in either case Netanyahu resembles Vorster in his political strategy.

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