What South Africa did wrong, and what that means for Israel

The two-state solution is dead, if it was ever living to begin with. On Dec. 30 2014, the United Nations Security Council rejected the Palestinian Authority’s demands for the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from territories seized during the Six-Day War, and for full Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank by Dec. 31 2017. The proposal fell one vote short: the United States and Australia voted no. Even if the proposal had passed, it was expected that the US would have vetoed it, as it has 41 times on Israel’s behalf since 1972. The real question is: why is the Palestinian Authority seeking a two-state solution at all?

A true two-state solution has never really existed. Even though the state of Palestine has been recognized by 135 of the 193 member states of the UN, the de jure state has never truly had sovereignty. Gaza is effectively the world’s largest open-air prison; Israeli settlers have been steadily expanding their presence in the West Bank. Power is divided between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas. No legitimate sovereign Palestinian economy exists – this was demonstrated recently by Israel’s economic punishment of Palestine for seeking membership on the International Criminal Court. Palestine is entirely beholden to Israel.

Palestinian politicians should stop seeking to maintain the status quo and should instead give in to their greatest fear: a unified Israel that includes Gaza and the West Bank. If Palestinians lived in a unified Israel and held Israeli citizenship, Israel would be forced to abandon its excuses of the past. No more would Israel be able to claim that Palestinians are not their concern and that they want peaceful coexistence: Israel would have to demonstrate this. If Israel continued policies of subjugation and separation, it would be exposed as an apartheid state and condemned internationally. The US would no longer be able to rely on the pretense of ‘negotiations’; true negotiations would have to take place between both parties.

If reunited, and if Palestinians were given the right to return to Israel as citizens as Jews worldwide have been offered, that would mean roughly 3 million refugees returning from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, plus the existent populations of Gaza and the West Bank. These sizable additions would bolster the already present Palestinian-Israeli population, which currently makes up about 20% of the country. Israel would no longer be able to ignore this population. The generally subdued Palestinian-Israeli population would be strengthened by the joining of their brethren; no longer would they be caught between allegiance to Israel, the nation within which they reside, and Palestine, a murkily-existent nation with which they are associated and, often, collectively condemned. Israel would have to deal honestly with its Palestinian population and their entitlement to free and fair representation.

Most Jews in Israel vehemently oppose a one-state solution. Fears abound that a one-state solution would result in the Jewish population being overrun by a Palestinian majority and persecuted, even violently oppressed, by the Palestinians and surrounding Arab states. This fear can somewhat be understood: anti-Semitism is strong in surrounding Arab nations, and the combined invasion by Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the 1948 war stands as a prominent rallying cry. However, a repeat of such an occurrence is highly unlikely. With the US military backing of Israel, coupled with strengthened relations with Jordan in recent decades and the political and military situation in surrounding countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, an invasion of Israel is almost entirely out of the question. With this in mind, it is only the Palestinians the Israelis have to fear.

But is this fear legitimate? Examining the case of the final days of apartheid South Africa may offer some illumination. The situations bear many similarities, and the parallels between the two are often drawn. Both cases involve a white, Western-backed colonial minority ruling over a non-white majority. The situations of Gaza and the West Bank bear many similarities to the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa as well as to the African National Congress, which also engaged in an armed struggle for freedom and was labeled a terrorist organization by nations such as the US. International outrage at the human rights abuses of apartheid South Africa eventually led to boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the apartheid government. As a result, the apartheid government lost legitimacy both internationally and domestically, and was forced into negotiations with the ANC. Such a result could easily be possible in Israel. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign has already been called for by Palestine and instituted by countries such as Chile, and would certainly gain support if Israel became a united apartheid state.

Studies conducted in South Africa in the late ’80s and ’90s paint a picture similar to that of Israel: with the powerful white minority fearing a bloodbath if majority rule came about. This white minority also had its own rallying calls. The cases of more than a million white colonizers abandoning Algeria post-independence, the Zimbabwean War of Independence and the airlift of 300,000 whites from Angola during colonization stood as stark reminders of how badly decolonization could go for white minority rule. However, the case of South Africa was special. The white population had grown to become a comfortable, suburban-dwelling demographic. They were unlikely to be able to withstand the economic penalties of drawn-out conflict. The BDS campaign proved sufficient, and quick compromise with the ANC prevented a bloody civil war. White South Africans were never truly in physical danger; South Africa was highly militarized and secure, even after the massive township uprisings of 1985-86. It can be assumed that the same would be true for Israel, for it is difficult to imagine the scantily armed Palestinians posing a serious threat to the country’s military power.

Israel, then, should have little to fear from a one-state solution that grants Palestinians true, free and equal enfranchisement. Arguments to the contrary are excuses aimed to maintain the current, unequal status quo. A better question then is: would South African-style peace and reconciliation offer Palestinians true equality in Israel?

While the end of apartheid brought about a constitution that protected the rights and liberties of all South Africans extensively and equally, and was followed by an almost bloodless transition to the modern ‘Rainbow Nation’, it failed to provide any real end to white minority domination. Aside from the restructuring of the government to have proportional representation of South Africa’s majority black population, little was done to restructure the institutions that enforced white supremacy in South Africa’s society, such as schools, businesses, banks, churches, residential areas, etc. While last-ditch efforts like Black Economic Empowerment were later made, these seemed to be more like applying a Band-Aid to the problem than actually solving it at its roots. Whites were (and still are) in charge South Africa’s institutions and its wealth. While the black middle class grows, the majority of black South Africans still live in poverty. The status quo can hardly be said to have changed.

This is a common reality: when white supremacist systems are overturned, either whites are expelled from the nation by the people they oppressed, are subject to a violent revolution, or – as in the case of South Africa – they are not held truly accountable for centuries of racial oppression. None of these is an ideal outcome. What Israel needs is a peaceful transition of power where white Israelis are shown that they can coexist in a country with their Palestinian compatriots, as happened in South Africa. However, if Israel’s institutions continue to be controlled by white Israeli Jews, it is hard to believe that the situation of the average Palestinian would improve very much from the current reality. A middle-ground is needed: where the Israeli Jewish fears of being violently overrun by Palestinians and their Arab neighbors does not come to pass, but also where the white minority that has oppressed and persecuted Palestinians for decades does not get off scot-free. Land redistribution, representation of Palestinians on executive boards and in key social institutions, social welfare and equal access to quality education and healthcare: these are only a handful of issues that would need to be addressed to redistribute power in a unified, free and equal Israel. If and when this would ever happen, however, is another question entirely.