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

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  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

South Africa and Israel: What is the Lag Time?

I recently had the experience of reading an authorized biography of Pik Botha, the long-serving South African foreign minister during the 1970s and 1980s who was also a leading leadership contender in the National Party because of his combination of liberalism (or what passed for it among most whites) and defiance of the West and the world. As I read his chapters on the dark days of apartheid in the mid-1980s I was struck by the parallels with Israel today. Botha fulfilled the same role in National Party governments as Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak have filled in Likud coalitions since 2001--the respectable face of the government that deals with the West.

So I started to think, what is the lag time between developments in South Africa and their equivalents in Israel? South Africa was initially ruled by the centrist Afrikaner South Africa Party (SAP). The National Party split from the SAP in 1913 and came to power for the first time in 1924. It then alternated with the SAP's successor, the United Party, until 1948 when it began an uninterrupted period of 46 years in power. The Likud first came to power  forming a coaliton in 1977, some 53 years after the National Party came to power. Twenty four years later--the same period as in South Africa--it began a period of uninterrupted rule of the Right, first the Likud under Sharon then the splinter Kadima under Sharon's successor Ehud Olmert, and finally the Likud again under Netanyahu.

The Afrikaners first experienced a period of siege--by the British Empire--in the early 1840s when they were chased out of Natal and across the Vaal River into the Transvaal. Here they formed their South African Republic in 1859. It remained independent until annexed by the British without resistance in 1877. After the British had defeated the Zulus, the main African threat to the Afrikaners, in 1879 the Afrikaners in the SAR revolted two years later and reestablished their independence from the British. However, they were under British threat for the next twenty years. In 1910 the Union of South Africa became independent within the British Commonwealth and was free from significant foreign threat for the next fifty years until 1961. In 1960-61 a low-level state of siege was established with significant political isolation. In 1975-76 this became major with the former Portuguese colonies of Southern Africa coming under Leninist governments and severe internal unrest starting in June 1976. The first serious trade sanctions followed a decade later. This lasted for only four years before the National Party leadership capitulated.

Israel was in a state of severe political siege within the region for more than a quarter century from 1948 to 1975, when it signed the Sinai II disengagement agreement with Egypt. The state of siege disappeared in 1979 with the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. It now may be coming back with the Arab Spring with the unrest in Egypt and Syria, the  falling out with Turkey over the Mavi Marmara incident, and continued wars with both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. So Israel is at least entering a period of light political siege after thirty years without it. If Israel follows the South African pattern, expect this state of siege to tighten up considerably after another decade and a half.

South Africa experienced three major periods of violence: the early 1960s when the African National Congress (ANC) carried out its sabotage campaign against electricity pylons and mail boxes and the Pan-Africanist Congress's Poqo carried out a terrorist campaign against ordinary whites; the Soweto uprising of June to December 1976; and the internal unrest of 1984-88 (which in Natal continued on almost until majority rule was implemented in the form of interorganizational violence between the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party).

Although Israel has experienced both of the Intifadas in the Palestinian territories, from 1987 to 1993 and from 2000 to 2006, the only large-scale Arab violence within Israel itself since 1948 was in October 2000. This only lasted for about two weeks at the start of the Al Aksa Intifada.  SWAPO's insurgency campaign against South African rule in Namibia began in 1966 and lasted for 22 years. Most of the heavy fighting was from 1976 to 1988.  The first serious sustained Palestinian insurgency inside the territories was in 1987. So there the gap is only a decade. The shortest time lag is probably the seven years between when Defense Minister P.W. Botha led his country into an adventure in Angola in 1975 without the permission of the cabinet, and when Defense Minister Ariel Sharon repeated this feat in Lebanon in 1982. Botha kept his job and went on to become prime minister three years later. Sharon was sacked as defense minister and had to wait two decades before becoming prime minister.

So which time lag is the significant one: the half-century lag before the Right came to power, the half- century lag before Israel entered its second state of siege, the twenty-four year gap between insurgencies in the home territory, or the decade lag between insurgencies in the conquered territories? This will become an increasingly important question as time goes by.

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