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

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The foreign policy of the 1980s--South African style

In a snarky retort during the 2012 presidential campaign Obama told Republican nominee Mitt Romney that the 1980s wanted their foreign policy back after Romney said that Russia was America's greatest national security threat. Obama should have told Benjamin Netanyahu that Pretoria wanted its 1980s foreign policy back. From 1978 to 1989, during the period of State President P.W. Botha, the ideology of the ruling National Party in Pretoria was that of the Total Onslaught/Total Response. This was a sort of neo-apartheid gloss on traditional apartheid. All of Pretoria's critics and enemies were clumped together as one threat led and controlled from Moscow: this meant the Western anti-apartheid movement advocating economic sanctions against South Africa in the United States and Europe, the white liberal opposition Progressive Federal Party, the liberal English-language press, the Third World countries supporting sanctions and voting against Pretoria in the United Nations (UN) and the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement and its de facto internal wing, the United Democratic Front, and the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) liberation movement in Namibia and its Angolan and Cuban protectors in Angola. All part of the same conspiracy. Part of a vast left-wing conspiracy--it would almost make Hillary Clinton blush.

Although Democratic and even Republican presidents made critical comments about apartheid in South Africa, their real concern was ending Pretoria's illegal military occupation of Namibia. To that end the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations all sat down with South African representatives and carefully dealt with their diplomatic and security concerns. First Henry Kissinger in 1976 came up with a plan for Namibian independence, but it was rejected by SWAPO, which did not want to subject itself to the rigor of free elections. Then American UN Ambassador Donald McHenry and the representatives of four other Western countries on the Security Council dealt with a series of South African objections throughout the Carter administration. Pretoria came up with one loop after another that the diplomats would have to jump through. 

Then with the advent of the Reagan administration in 1981 the new Assistant Secretary of State for Southern Africa Chester Crocker came up with the plan of bribing Pretoria to leave by making the Cuban presence in Angola linked to that of the South Africans in Namibia. It took several years to get first Pretoria and then the African Frontline States to accept this linkage. And what it really took was a series of epic battles in southern Angola in which a brigade-size South African expeditionary force fighting alongside its UNITA guerrilla allies blunted a major Angolan incursion into UNITA-controlled territory. Fidel Castro made a big show of claiming a major victory over the South Africans in the siege of Cuito Cuanavale, but Pretoria had not tried to capture the town but merely to restrict the Angolans to their side of the river bank. 

In late 1988 over several months Crocker mediated a deal by which South Africa traded Namibian independence for the Cuban presence in Angola and Pretoria and Luanda both agreed not to support guerrilla forces against the other. This led to Namibian independence in early 1990 and the start of the end of apartheid in South Africa.

In the Middle East we are at the stage comparable to that of the late Carter administration. Netanyahu paints a picture of a vast conspiracy led by Tehran and including the BDS movement in the West, the liberal Meretz opposition and several Israeli NGOs and the liberal Ha'Aretz newspaper in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile John Kerry dutifully attempts to satisfy every new condition that Jerusalem comes up with for starting peace talks with the Palestinians. The latest is the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Once that is agreed to, Netanyahu will no doubt come up with a new demand.

In South Africa the Total Onslaught theory was meant to disguise the fact that the major problem was apartheid and minority rule. In Israel the Israeli version is meant to disguise the fact that the problem is the ideology of Greater Israel and its accompanying settlement and occupation. In the case of South Africa the West did not feed Pretoria a constant stream of assurances about its security but rather patiently negotiated on the basis of international law. The big change happened in the 1980s when the Reagan administration eventually ended up--with the assistance of the Democratic Congress--with a carrot and sticks approach. The carrot was the removal of the Cuban presence and the sticks were American and European economic sanctions that were voted upon in 1985-86 in reaction to the internal unrest in South Africa. The closest Middle Eastern counterpart to the Cubans are Hezbollah. A repeat of the South African solution would require another Israeli invasion of Lebanon and a prolonged occupation. It would also require some sticks from Washington and Brussels.

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