REMARKABLE progress is being made toward a new nonracial political structure in South Africa. If the proposed five-year transition government is established, and a constitutional convention is convened, that nation may solve some of its bitter divisions. If so, much of the credit goes to President Frederik de Klerk for his courageous decision in 1990 to begin talking with the traditional enemy of the South African whites, the African National Congress (ANC).
President De Klerk's decision followed a pattern in which dominant powers initially oppose groups that have support among a suppressed majority. Those in power hoped to find or create more malleable organizations with which to deal - only to conclude no alternative to dealing with "the enemy" exists.
In Algeria, before independence, France supported a proclaimed Algerian nationalist group under Messali Haj as a counter to the National Liberation Front (FLN). But France finally had to negotiate with FLN leaders for a peaceful transition to independence. In Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, the white minority sought to promote a government under Bishop Abel Muzorewa and others rather than recognize opposition groups. Ultimately, only talks with Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe brought a solution.
South Africa's white regime tried other options: building colored and Indian constituencies and supporting Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Party - intending to divide blacks and defeat the ANC. The strategy worked no more successfully than such efforts in Algeria and Zimbabwe.
It is tempting, in looking at these parallels, to examine another case, that of the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Although the Israeli Knesset has recently relaxed restrictions on private Israelis talking with the PLO, the Rabin government remains adamantly opposed to any PLO contacts.
Israelis, like others in similar circumstances, have looked for alternatives, primarily in "more reasonable" individual Palestinians. Jerusalem even tolerated the Muslim fundamentalist group, Hamas, in its earlier manifestations - hoping to divide the Palestinians and weaken the PLO. Current problems with Hamas suggest the failure of that policy.
The Israeli administration insists that the Palestinian delegation in the Middle East peace talks does not represent the PLO; yet continuing contact between the negotiators and PLO headquarters in Tunis is an open secret.
Israelis balk at comparisons between their situation and that of South Africa. The question in the Middle East, they say, is not one of a minority sharing power with an oppressed minority. Rather, it is protection against an external group that, by covenant, threatens the concept and existence of the state. Israelis are prepared to deal with populations in the occupied territories. But not with those of a group claiming Israeli land as their own. Certainly the situations in Israel and South Africa differ
in fundamental ways, though the two regimes have had common interests in collaboration. Parallel attitudes can be found in the ruling groups: fears of the consequences of change, convictions that force can prevail, and hopes that unfranchised peoples can be divided and discredited. Israelis can't have deeper antipathy for the PLO than do some white South Africans toward the ANC.
Israelis argue that the PLO, in Yasser Arafat, does not have a leader comparable in stature to Nelson Mandela of the ANC hence efforts to recognize or negotiate with Mr. Arafat would be political death. Yet, perhaps, another lesson arises from the South African case: De Klerk saw that if he did not take advantage of Mr. Mandela's prestige and following, time would run out and less reasonable leaders would arise.
The same may be true in Israel. It is not easy for dominant powers, challenged by leaders and organizations of suppressed people, to turn and deal with the perceived enemy. Yet history suggests that to deny the popularity and power of such organizations is to risk the emergence of worse alternatives. Israelis seeking peace in the Middle East might need to learn this.