The attempt to compare the Israel-Palestine conflict to the situation that prevailed in South Africa prior to 1994 is historically misleading. But politically it is potentially a potent weapon against Israel. Worse, Israel has in recent years been playing right into the hands of those who seek to compare it to South Africa.
Israelis and Palestinians are on the edge of a slippery slope toward the south africanization of our conflict–yet without a South African solution. After all, neither side seeks or would accept a South African-style one-state solution; for Jews, a binational state in historic Eretz Yisrael/Palestine is the antithesis of the Zionist objective of establishing a Jewish state.
South Africans–black, white and colored–always wanted a single, multi-ethnic state. Their disagreement was over who would rule, and how. With the exception of a small, white radical fringe, no one in South Africa ever projected or proposed a two state solution or partition into black and white states. In contrast, Israel and Palestine were conceived as separate Jewish and Arab states from the start. Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 in a legitimate war of self-defense. Its governments have always, at least at the official level, recognized the need to negotiate peace with an Arab partner (first Jordan, then the PLO) and to evacuate at least part of these territories. Thus it is fair to say that Israel has not until now "deserved" the South Africa comparison.
What is potentially relevant for Israelis and Palestinians in the South African experience is not the evolution of the South African dilemma, but rather the political reality prior to 1994: the apartheid system, in which a white minority ruled over a black majority, sought to confine it to separate and unequal homelands or bantustans, discriminated against it legally and restricted its freedom of movement.
The danger of south africanization for Israelis is that this description will become increasingly applicable to Israel’s treatment of the West Bank and Gaza. We must discuss this comparison with caution, not only because the history is so different, but also insofar as the situation remains fluid and evolving and much could still change under pressure from Israel’s courts, the Israeli public, and the international community.
While Jews are not yet a minority and the Palestinian Arabs a majority, the demographic clock is ticking and within 10-20 years this will indeed be the situation. While the Arab citizens of Israel and to some extent East Jerusalem Arabs are not subject to the restrictions placed on the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, they are nevertheless second class citizens who increasingly identify with their Palestinian brethren in the territories. While Palestinians are today prevented from using many roads in the territories, in deference to the security of the settlers, and in many cases need permission to move from one place to another, the reason for these restrictions is strictly security-based; the restrictions are relaxed when the security situation improves.
Perhaps the most critical issue in the south africanization discussion is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. This plan implicitly recognizes that the settlements have become the major element in the south africanization argument. By dismantling settlements in these areas, Israel will begin to lay the foundation for a genuine separation between the two peoples that can eventually take the form of two sovereign states.
Yet the current disengagement plan also encourages the South Africa comparison. Because Israel will continue to surround Gaza and monitor all imports and exports, Gaza is liable to be seen as a "bantustan". Phase II of the disengagement plan envisages Israel relinquishing control over Gaza’s entry and exit points, but no one can predict when the security situation will permit this step. Meanwhile, even if further steps toward limited disengagement are taken in the West Bank, the best approximation of Sharon’s vision is a number of Palestinian enclaves surrounded by Israel on all sides, pending peace negotiations that do not seem likely as long as Sharon and Arafat are in power and the administration in Washington is not interested in shepherding a genuine peace process. This map, too, will lend itself to the bantustan description.
Under current security conditions no responsible Israeli leader–not just Sharon, but even a left wing leader–can abandon Israeli control over Palestine’s borders with the Arab world and its air and sea ports. Even if some additional West Bank settlers are removed by Sharon–the most anyone could hope for on a unilateral basis–Israel will still remain in control of the Jordan Valley, thereby conceivably still lending a degree of credence to the bantustan comparison. Meanwhile, extremist Palestinians, at least some of whom reject a two state solution, will continue to attack Israelis with the express purpose of preventing negotiations for a two state solution and hastening the south africanization of the conflict. And Yasser Arafat will support, or at least condone, their actions.
Thus more "south africanization" might be inevitable. Under a best case scenario from Israel’s standpoint, what is missing in order to combat the South Africa comparison is a clear leadership commitment to a viable two state solution, including Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley and a genuine Gaza-West Bank safe passage, if and when a Palestinian partner emerges.
Sharon is incapable of making such a commitment; his vision of a truncated and non-viable Palestinian "state" is perhaps the most compelling ammunition for those who would accuse Israel of apartheid designs. On the other hand, he appears to be the only leader capable of beginning to dismantle settlements, which are at the heart of the South Africa comparisons.