Parallels of Peace: Middle East and S. Africa

The granting of the Nobel prize helped bring peace to S. Africa, but last week's prize-giving may not do the same in the Middle East

THE international community bestowed its full blessing on the 15-month-old peace accord between Israel and Palestinian leaders at the solemn and dignified Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo Dec. 10.

Exactly one year earlier the world gave the same stamp of approval to the peace and democracy process in South Africa - five months before Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country's first black president.

But will the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize to the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians have as profound a role in consolidating the Middle East peace process as the 1993 prize had in South Africa?

In Israel, Jews support the process more tenuously (around 50 percent) than in South Africa where former President Frederik de Klerk won the support of almost 70 percent of whites for his path of political reform.

South Africa also had the advantage of having an election date written in stone by the time the Nobel Peace Prize was announced. In the Middle East, the final goal of the peace process is still vague and the date for Palestinian elections for their self-rule authority has not been set.

But on the surface, some striking similarities stand out in the circumstances surrounding the announcement and award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel award to Mr. Mandela and Mr. De Klerk was announced on the day that the white murderers of one of South Africa's most prominent black leaders - Chris Hani of the African National Congress (ANC) - were sentenced to death.

The sentence was met by a mob of black supporters shouting for the felons to be sent to the gallows despite the fact that the ANC opposes the death sentence and had played a key role in pressuring the De Klerk government to suspend executions.

A week before the announcement, the South African Defense Force had launched a raid into the neighboring black homeland of Transkei, ostensibly in pursuit of guerrillas of the militant Azanian People' Liberation Army. Children and civilians were shot in their sleep.

The outcry that followed placed Mandela under mounting pressure not to receive the award with De Klerk, just as Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat was under pressure not to accept the award with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Several hundred anti-Arafat Israeli demonstrators in Oslo reminded Mr. Rabin and Mr. Peres that they should have refused to receive the award jointly with Mr. Arafat - just as right-wing whites told De Klerk.

In Israel, the award to Rabin, Peres, and Arafat was announced on the day that Israeli commandos stormed a house where a kidnapped Israeli soldier was being held by Islamic militants.

Radicals undercut peace

In a bungled operation by the usually precise Israeli Defense Force, the soldier and the officer who led the charge were killed along with three kidnappers.

The kidnapping in October set off a wave of violent attacks by Islamic extremists that culminated with the suicide bus bomb in Tel Aviv four days later and cast a question mark over the direction of the peace process.

In South Africa, Mandela skillfully defused the avalanche of criticism directed at De Klerk after the Defense Force raid and created a dignified setting for the Nobel Peace ceremony.

In Arafat's address after receiving the Nobel Prize, he demonstrated that he has moved a long way toward accepting that it is in his interests to address Israeli security fears.

But his actions in dealing with Islamic extremists have so far failed to convince the Israelis.

``In Israel, the criticism surrounding the Nobel ceremony has been much wider and deeper than it was in South Africa,'' notes Alon Liel, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa who returned in October to take up his post as head of Economics and Planning.

``Here much of the criticism is directed at the peace process itself. Many critics believe it will not survive,'' says Mr. Liel, the only senior Israeli official who lived in South Africa through the dramatic culmination of the South African peace process between 1992 and 1994.

In South Africa, no alternative to the awkward marriage between the leaders of the white minority and the black majority really existed - other than an apocalyptic descent into racial war.

Crises during the peace process - and there were many - always seemed to be followed by breakthroughs. The leaders were moved to act as they stared into the abyss of mutual destruction.

In the Middle East, the incremental divorce between Israel and the Palestinians is set back each time a crisis arises - such as the massacre of 29 praying Muslims by Israeli extremist Baruch Goldstein in February or the recent wave of Islamic attacks.

Given Israel's influential worldwide support, the alternative of a pure security response to a political crisis is always there.

``In South Africa, when the Nobel Prize was announced, it was clear that there had been a major achievement of peace,'' Liel says. ``Here, the agreement between us and the Palestinians has passed only one hurdle.''

Liel says that in both situations progress toward peace was invariably marked by an upsurge in violence from extremists bent on wrecking the accords.

Stuck in the middle

The Israel-PLO process has reached a stalemate between the Israeli insistence on security and Arafat's striving for legitimacy in the face of increasing challenges from Islamic extremists.

``Another question in the minds of Israelis is: Can Arafat deliver the Palestinians?

``In South Africa, Mandela delivered 90 percent of the black vote. Some doubt whether Arafat can deliver 50 percent of the Palestinian vote,'' Liel says.

He said that the South Africans realized after the assassination of ANC leader Hani in April 1993 that ``if you slow down the process after every terror attack, you will never finish.''

In retrospect, setting the date for South African elections proved to be a turning point in the peace process that provided the necessary momentum to take South Africa to its goal.

``As in South Africa, I think that the Palestinian elections could be the breakthrough to peace.

``The election in South Africa was the point at which the political resistance was cut down to size, violence subsided, and the political struggle was instantly transformed into nation-building,'' Liel says.

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