Israel, South Africa, and the ‘deal of the century’

Why We Wrote This

South Africa in the 1980s may offer lessons for Israel today. Progress ultimately came not from the establishment's superior power or economic leverage, but from a shift in thought within it.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah wave national flags amid a protest against President Donald Trump's Mideast initiative, Feb. 11, 2020.

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Israel may not be the “apartheid state” that its most vocal critics claim. But there are illuminating parallels between South Africa in the 1980s, before Nelson Mandela became president, and Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians today.

Black South Africans then and Palestinians now faced a huge power deficit; neither could really threaten the governments they challenged. The economic disparities too were enormous; the white South African government then, and President Donald Trump now, with his new Middle East peace plan, offered huge amounts of cash as inducements to go along.

But power and patronage have their limits. In South Africa, in the end, F.W. de Klerk’s government changed course, abandoned apartheid, and paved the way for Mr. Mandela and black majority rule.

In Israel, and the West Bank lands that its army and settlers have occupied since 1967, there are no signs of a change of course. Mr. Trump’s so called “deal of the century” has met with blunt, out of hand rejection by the Palestinians, its $50 billion sweetener notwithstanding.

Mr. de Klerk’s move resolved one decadeslong conflict. Mr. Trump’s plan may prolong another.

It is a bit like déjà vu, but through the looking glass.

More than three decades ago, as the Monitor’s recently arrived South Africa correspondent, I explained the obstacles facing the apartheid government’s vaunted hopes for a power-sharing deal with the country’s black majority by citing the cautionary lessons of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Now, however, it’s the lessons of South Africa that may shed light on prospects for the “deal of the century” that President Donald Trump has proposed to Israel and the Palestinians.

The two conflicts, historically and politically, are very different. Despite the accusations of the Israelis’ most vocal international critics, Israel is not an “apartheid state.” At least not yet.

But there are parallels, important to understanding South Africa’s conflict back in the late 1980s, and important to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians today.

Power and money ...

Parallel No. 1: a huge disparity of power.

Even at the height of anti-apartheid violence in the black townships, South Africa’s government, army, and police never faced a serious threat to their control. Except in numbers – a 3-1 advantage over their white rulers – black South Africans were in a wholly one-sided struggle. Their most powerful political leader, Nelson Mandela, had been in jail for decades. His African National Congress was banned.

Palestinians have, at times, threatened the security of Israeli civilians on a scale never experienced by white South Africans, notably through suicide bombings and other acts of violence during the intifada that began in 2000. But Israel’s “separation” barrier has all but ended such attacks, and in any case the violence has never threatened Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, let alone the stability of the Israeli state.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian political leadership has never been weaker.

Parallel No. 2: an equally enormous disparity in economic leverage.

Key to the South African government’s grand scheme for negotiating its way out of its impasse with the black majority was the promise of economic benefits if black South Africans went along: a major boost to spending on black housing, education, and jobs.

Mr. Trump’s Middle East plan is promising even greater sums: the prospect of $50 billion of new investment in Palestinian areas and other Arab economies.

... have their limits

But another parallel will almost certainly matter more: the limits to power and patronage, however overwhelming.

In South Africa, the very powerlessness of black people led most of them, at least in the urban townships, to figure that either they had nothing to lose by turning to violence, or nothing much to gain by embracing political or economic compromise. In some cases, they were motivated by political commitment. In others, by rational calculation. For many it was a simple matter of self-worth.

Hardly any felt even the bare minimum of mutual trust it would have taken to engage meaningfully with the authorities.

The same is true of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians presented with the Trump administration’s deal, which their leaders have rejected out of hand. In fact, they may have even less incentive to engage. The future mapped out for them envisages limited Palestinian control over 70% or so of the West Bank, with none at all inside Jerusalem, while Israel would also hold on to the valley land on the border with Jordan.

Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton presented Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with a proposal for a Palestinian state on nearly all of the West Bank, as well as sovereignty over parts of the predominantly Arab eastern part of Jerusalem. He rejected it. Few Palestinians see now why they should even consider a far less attractive offer.

The real lesson from South Africa, however, may involve what comes next.

The Trump plan envisages Israeli annexation of 30% of the West Bank. Any eventual Palestinian state on the remaining territory would have to extend formal recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The plan also leaves open the possibility that Israel’s border with the West Bank might be redrawn, putting hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arab citizens into a Palestinian state.

If that ever happened, it might blur the distinctions between Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and South African apartheid. The conflict would no longer be between two peoples with competing national narratives and aspirations. It would have been explicitly redefined in religious terms: between a Jewish state and a Palestinian one to which Israel’s non-Jewish, Arab citizens would, in theory, be moved.

If a Palestinian state does not emerge – and Israel remains in control of the whole West Bank – a future Israeli government could face a choice reminiscent of South Africa’s under apartheid: either give Palestinians a vote in Israeli elections, or embed and codify a system under which Palestinians under effective Israeli rule have different, lesser rights.

The power of a fundamental rethink

Israelis are going to the polls in March. The future of the “deal of the century” may depend on the results. And that too suggests a parallel with South Africa.

After Mr. Mandela became president, many argued that it was because of pressure from domestic unrest and international sanctions that the apartheid regime had buckled.

Both played a part, of course. But I vividly remember a conversation with an old friend shortly after Mr. Mandela’s election. Her name was Helen Suzman. She was the leading light among the small band of anti-apartheid activists in South Africa’s whites-only Parliament, and she was a friend of Mr. Mandela as well.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves,” she said. “The apartheid system wasn’t brought to its knees. The apartheid government could have held on for years if it had wanted to. For decades.”

The key came from inside the establishment: from President F. W. de Klerk, who decided it was time to bring white rule to an end.

No such fundamental rethink seems likely in Israel. The political center of gravity there has shifted rightward in recent years. And while some opposition politicians object to the idea of moving Arab Israelis into a putative Palestinian state, broad support has emerged for unilateral annexation of the main West Bank settlements, even though such a move would be illegal under international law.

In South Africa, the government’s change of course under Mr. de Klerk brought resolution to one decades-old conflict. In the Middle East, President Trump’s deal could prolong another.

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