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South Africa seen as model for Palestine

By Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-American, and the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Chicago Tribune | November 12, 2006

As I watched the images last week of destruction from the Gaza Strip, where an Israeli shelling attack had killed an entire family, as a Palestinian I could understand the feelings of one survivor who said, “I cannot see a day when we will live in peace with them.” But I also know there is no other choice.

When Israel was established, its founders said it would be an exemplary, moral state. For many Jews, it seemed like a miraculous redemption after so much suffering and loss in the Nazi Holocaust.

Palestinians experienced a different reality. Israel became a “Jewish state” in a country that had always been multicultural and multireligious. The expulsion and exclusion of Palestinians from their own homeland has led Israelis and Palestinians into an endless nightmare of mutual non-recognition and bloodshed.

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that this conflict can only be resolved by partitioning the country into two states. Yet despite enormous political and diplomatic efforts to achieve this, the two peoples remain thoroughly if unhappily intertwined. Israel’s project of establishing settler-colonies inside the territories where Palestinians wanted to create a state has rendered separation impossible.

At the same time, Israel finds itself in a conundrum. For the first time since the state was founded, Israeli Jews no longer form an absolute majority in the territory they control. Today there are roughly 5 million Jews and 5 million Palestinians living in the same land. The trends are incontestable. Within a few years, Palestinians will form the clear majority.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recognized in 2003 what this would mean: “We are approaching the point where more and more Palestinians will say, `There is no place for two states,'” in this country, and “`All we want is the right to vote.’ The day they get it, we will lose everything.” Warning that Israel could not remain both a Jewish state and a democracy if it held on to all of the occupied Palestinian territories, Olmert added, “I shudder to think that liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the burden of struggle against apartheid, will lead the struggle against us.”

Some Israeli extremists, like the new Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, believe this “demographic problem” can be solved by expelling non-Jews. Israel’s chosen solution, which it calls “unilateral separation,” walls Palestinians into impoverished ghettos Palestinians compare to the townships and Bantustans set up for blacks by the apartheid government of South Africa. The result of this approach, as we see in Gaza, is more hopelessness, resistance and defiance, and sure disaster for both peoples.

The two-state solution remains attractive and comforting in its apparent simplicity and finality. But in reality, it has proved unattainable because neither Palestinians nor Israelis are willing to give up enough of the country that they love. Faced with this impasse, a small but growing group of Israelis and Palestinians are tentatively exploring an old idea long dormant: Why not have a single state in which both peoples enjoy equal rights and protections and religious freedom? Many people dismiss this as utopian dreaming.

Allister Sparks, the legendary editor of the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail newspaper, observed that the conflict in South Africa most resembled those in Northern Ireland and Palestine-Israel, because each involved “two ethno-nationalisms” in a seemingly irreconcilable rivalry for the “same piece of territory.” If the prospect of “one secular country shared by all” seems “unthinkable” in Palestine-Israel today, then it is possible to appreciate how unlikely such a solution once seemed in South Africa. But “that is what we did,” Sparks says, “without any foreign negotiator [and] no handshakes on the White House lawn.”

To be sure, Palestinians and Israelis would not simply be able to take the new South Africa as a blueprint. They would have to work out their own distinct constitution, including mechanisms for ethnic communities to have autonomy in matters that concern them, and to guarantee that no one group can dominate another. There would be hard work to heal the terrible wounds of the past. Such a solution offers the chance that Palestine-Israel could become for the first time ever the truly safe home where Israelis and Palestinians can accept each other. It may be an arduous path, but in the current impasse we cannot afford to ignore any ray of light.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

10 comments on “South Africa seen as model for Palestine

  1. nortonheinz
    14 November, 2006

    Israel was created in order to offer a home of last resort and protector for the world’s Jews. It provides the Jewish people with the powers of a state on this Earth in order to secure their survival, such as with the evacuation of Ethiopian Jews.

    The white population of South Africa, though maybe proud to be South Africans, already have such protector states to fall back on: Great Britain and the Netherlands (former naval superpowers to boot), their ancestors’ homes. It is the fundamental reason peoples without nation-states to protect them desire one. The one-state solution is a paradox: why would a state in conflict surrender internal power to those it is in conflict with?

  2. peoplesgeography
    14 November, 2006

    Hi Norton,

    Following on from our discussion started over at Beirut Spring a few days ago now, my subsequent invitation to bring the extended conversation here I trust indicated my willingness to engage with someone with views very different to my own.

    I would like to think we have already made our basic positions clear. It is not the existence of Israel most sensible people concerned with a just resolution to this entrenched conflict have. We know why and under what circumstances Israel was created. Jews have always lived in Palestine, in a multi-religious, polyglot land as Abuminah has noted in the article. (The article by the way is a very short piece tailor-made for a newspaper – read his book for an elaboration of his proposals.) It is the violent displacement and dispossession of the indigenous non-Jewish Palestinians in the process, and the continued discrimination and inhumane conditions and often shocking incidents they suffer at the hands of a settler state, with which we have a problem.

    The conduct of the state of Israel is endangering its own survival, leading Israelis themselves to questions its raison d’etre – because of its ill-advised policies and refusal to embrace genuine peace and a just settlement, Israel is arguably the most dangerous place on Jews on the planet at this time. This was the proposition and central theme of a recent article by an Israeli, who lamented the lack of wisdom in the decisions of the Israeli establishment. Lest you think its only Left-leaning Ha’aretz, here’s one from the conservative Jerusalem Post.

    As my meeting between Sydney Jews and Palestinians on Sunday discussed, which was terrific since you expressly wondered about it over at Beirut Spring’s comment thread, what have we learnt from the Holocaust? What has Israel learnt from the terrible events of the Shoah? How can it do unto a people the same sorts of things–with the same sorts of attitudes–meted out to the beleaguered Palestinians?

    So Israel’s chosen pursuit of this perilous bellicose path undermines the first point you present, in my opinion. Does Israel really choose peace or does it actively reject peaceful overtures from its immediate neighbours?

    You then state that (white) South Africans have “protector states” to fall back on, such as the UK and Netherlands.
    Doesn’t a healthy Jewish population happily thrive in both aforementioned countries, indeed, in many others, protected by the laws of those countries?

    Nor do I nevertheless begrudge Jewish residents worldwide ties to Israel, but this does not mean it comes at the expense of the Palestinians. Why are the Palestinians so denied the same rights? I and others have repeated this ad nauseum. When it boils down to it, many of your positions implicitly reveal that you value Jewish or Israeli lives above Palestinians. I do not. But my formulation is not the reverse. It simply sees all parties as human with the same entitlements and basic human rights. It doesn’t see the justice in a newly arrived Russian Jewish emigre immediately granted full rights and citizenship, having never before set foot in the Middle East, but a Palestinian whose family has lived there for generations, denied visa renewals, denied family reunions, denied the ability to drive along Jew-only roads, denied common human dignity by having to wait hours at numerous checkpoints, denied water resources, denied electricity, denied livelihoods.

    That my site unapologetically, proudly bats for justice and the restitution of rights to Palestinians is an indication of just how much of a counterweight is needed to restore balance against the overwhelmingly, some would say rabidly, Israel-first view in the corporate mainstream media. You’ll find this in much of the alternative press. You’ll notice I feature Israeli voices from various sources and from the valued Israeli peace movement. Yes, most are critical, which is my prerogative at my site (a site expressly for political activism), and they are critical with good reason. But I do not, and will never, parrot an official Israeli government line. I have also included numerous articles critical of Hezbollah, and as you will know AGAIN from my up-front position in Beirut Spring, I do not condone violence by any party for whatever reason. Right now, the overwhelming weight of violence is being perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians. As you also know, I am neither Palestinian or Israeli. I have no a priori commitment or proclivity towards one over the other. I am for justice. This means justice so that Palestinians can live as humans in their own land, and the children of Sderot as much as Gaza, can go to school peacefully, Norton.

    The one state solution has been proffered by a number of pundits as a direct consequence of the territorially discontiguous bantustan pockets Israel has relegated any future Palestinian state to being because of illegal settlements it continues to this day, and a wall which steals a further 10% of Palestinian land. I’m sure both parties would prefer 2 states but Israel is doing everything to prevent this. A one state solution may be a paradox, you opine, but it is a creative solution that may be possible in a later political climate. Conflicts are neither eternal nor immutable. Even for the Israeli behemoth state and military machine.

    best wishes,

  3. Norton
    16 November, 2006

    Who knows when anti-semitism might reappear in presently enlightened countries? A nation-state is a guarantee of a home of last resort regardless of any future possibilities, so long as the nation-state survives. That’s the kind of security I’m talking about.

    I also have no Palestinian or Israeli (or Jewish) relatives. And yet I seem to see something you fail to see in your “ad nauseum” repetition: that your so-called justice demands the negation of Israel. That won’t happen without a fight. So which is it, “justice”, or “peace”? That is the crux of my problem with your position.

    And I’m dropping the Heinz from the name; only belatedly realized it’s a Hebrew name, and I don’t want to be misleading with my made-up handle. Hmm, is Norton misleading too? Or am I needlessly worrying about it?

    See how ‘N’ was so much more appropriate?

  4. peoplesgeography
    16 November, 2006

    Norton, thank you for your rejoinder. As you know I welcome challenging views. In sum, I couldn’t agree with you less. First, it is immaterial to me whether your made-up handle is Hebrew or not, are you suggesting that it is? My first name is Hebrew and in itself means little – your preoccupation with it and adding then dropping a name and commenting upon its putative ethnicity is bemusing.

    It is simply my personal prerogative to address people by a name, for me it humanises them and adds to the exchange. So, no, I do not at all see how ‘N’ was somehow more appropriate.

    The reappearance of anti-semitism to the degree of 1930s Europe is an extremely unlikely, mighty big ‘if’ and can never justify the violence and dispossession perpetrated against the Palestinians who had nothing to do with it. Two wrongs do not make a right. If anti-semitism is on the rise it is overwhelmingly being directed at Arab Semites, not Jews. Yes, anti-semitism directed against Jews does still exist but there is absolutely no evidence that it is exists moreso than any other type of marginalised crackpot racism. Show me the evidence. Calls for “never again” are absolutely important, unfortunately they altogether miss the rights of non-European peoples and of the Palestinians in this instance.

    I also do not see that my call for justice at all requires the negation of Israel as a state, particularly as a state like any other and not as a supremacist settler apartheid state trampling on others’ rights by expanding illegal settlements on Palestinian land and creating two open air prisons in the oPt. Like many others, I call for Israel to finally adhere to any number of UN resolutions it has willfully ignored; primary among them, UN Res 242 with mutual recognition (indeed, international recognition) of 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.

    Indeed, rather than your untenable “either-or” formulation of peace and justice, I would suggest that they are not at all polarities but necessarily go hand in hand. You can not have one without the other. It’s “both-and”.

    You mention you have no Palestinian, Jewish or Israeli relatives. Inasmuch as it is relevant, I also do not have any blood ties but am blessed with many wonderful Jewish and Palestinian friends. If you have a problem with my view, I’m bemused to think how you would even begin to get a handle on some of my Jewish and Israeli friends’ views, which are often far more critical of Israel than my own.

    As are the likes of many Israeli voices featured here, such as Amira Hass, Tanya Reinhart, Gideon Levy. I also featured an article by an avowed zionist too recently who advocated the adoption of Arabic as an official state language in Israel, amongst other proposals that I thought were worthwhile.

    Nor is the Jewish and/ or Israeli community homogeneous. It is most certainly diverse. I have Jewish colleagues in my circle who would take exception to Avnery’s latest article calling the Beit Hanoun massacre a massacre and others who are just as revulsed as I am, by violence and acts that target civilians on both sides. Inasmuch as you can definitively prove anything, yes one can show that both sides have targeted civilians and innocents.

    Nor is the Lebanese community, in Lebanon or the diaspora, homogeneous either. Within my own family there are a wide range of views about Israel. Certainly no-one wants to see Israel destroyed, but this is not a zero-sum game. Israel is not in any real danger of being destroyed, Palestine is. With regard to Lebanon, I’d also like to see Hezbollah disarmed and subsumed into the Lebanese military. But I do not see the recent unjustified and wholly disproportionate attack on Lebanon as the result of Hezbollah actions — that is a caricature of a complex situation and misses the ongoing provocations of the IDF that go beyond its claim merely to defend its existential right to exist.

    In all your writing so far, for me you have continually sidestepped the rights of Palestinians. You graphically claim that calls for justice and restitution of rights would somehow, in your formulation, lead to a “suicide” of Israel, yet you have no compunction in completely ignoring the rights of Palestinians that would lead to a death of their homeland, their state, their inalienable rights.

    The crux of all this is, again, it need not be ‘either-or’, it can and must be ‘both-and’. And while for you it is envisaged as a paradox, it is an eminently workable one, a creative paradox from which workable solutions can bear fruit. It is the only source of peaceful solutions, not violence. Violence and militarism hasn’t and never will solve anything. We can take from the wonderful liberal secular humanism that is part of our Judaic heritage and come up with innovative solutions to what up until now has been made a seemingly intractable conflict (and the corollary of that is that it can be unmade as such). But not while Israel lurches to the far right (Lieberman), continues to deny Palestinians basic human rights, shuns numerous peace overtures and propagates paranoia and fear. Yes, similar work also needs to be done on the Palestinian side but nowhere near to the same degree required as in Israel, who as the more powerful partner has the onus to act. Security has no military solution. It requires talking to Hamas. Simple as that. And — a leap of imagination.

    That’s not anti-Israel, that’s the path to peace and security. IMHO. For both peoples.


  5. Curtis
    17 November, 2006

    I’d like to chime in by observing that I can’t see how a single-state solution would “negate” Israel, since its formation would require the assent of the Israeli Jews—perhaps the idea of what it would mean to negate Israel needs clarification.

    Nor can I see how having a state created expressly for a religious or ethnic group necessarily guarantees the perpetual safety of the citizens. In ideology, maybe; in practice, hardly. Iran is an example of an Islamic nation in which Muslims, Arab Muslims in particular, are regularly and harshly persecuted. The principal cause of political persecution has practically always been resistance to power on the part of persecuted, often in the context of a class struggle, and no sort of nominal predication can intrinsically prevent this.

    Personally, I believe that if the concept of the Israeli state was undermined, it was undermined from the beginning. The decision to build a Jewish state on clearly multicultural land in which Jews had not previously constituted a majority in many centuries–and, furthermore, to do so by force–could never have seriously been expected to yield a peaceful existence for any of its inhabitants, Jewish or otherwise. Only sixty years into the adventure we are already seeing the terrible consequences of such brittle thinking.

    At this point, Jewish settlements throughout the area are positioned (and have sometimes been strategically positioned, in my estimation) in such a way as to render a two-state solution in many ways unsatisfactory to all involved. I recognize fully that the Jewish people in Israel are suffering, not just the Palestinians, but as Ann has pointed out, one can hardly objectively view the situation as balanced from the analysis of statistics ranging from mortality rates to fiscal fortitude on either side of the divide. Well, such comparisons can hardly be constructive anyway. Instructive, but not constructive.

    If anything is to be negated, it is the sense that Jews and Arabs in what is today called Israel are not the inhabitants of the same land, because they are. Both Palestinians and Israelis will have to give up their respective dreams of ideologically centered homelands on the premises if the death and destruction are going to come to an end. The ineffable tragedies of the Holocaust did not entitle Jews to establish a Jewish state on already populated territory, and certainly not in the forceful and unilateral manner in which the establishment took place. Only the military force behind the colonial settlers accomplished that. If Israel has been negated, then, in my view, the fault lies with the very heady and overtly racist and hegemonic conceptions which gave rise to its existence. Nevertheless, thanks to entropy, a compromise from both major ethnic groups is required to make headway in settling the matter.

  6. peoplesgeography
    17 November, 2006

    Thoughtful and prescient points impressively and concisely put, thanks Curtis. Couldn’t have put it better as you did in your nuanced and admirable grasp of the situation. Amongst your numerous observations, you do well to remind us that a single bi-national state would hardly negate Israel as it would require the assent and integral formulating and founding input of Israeli Jews.

    The reference to entropy made me smile – this process has to generate some positives!

  7. Norton
    20 November, 2006

    “Amongst your numerous observations, you do well to remind us that a single bi-national state would hardly negate Israel as it would require the assent and integral formulating and founding input of Israeli Jews.”

    That it would negate Israel means it won’t get the assent of Israeli Jews. That’s exactly why the plan won’t work. Nice circular logic, there, both of you. As for negating Israel, I mean negating Israel as a Jewish state, with the Jewish majority suddenly surrendering power inside their own country by drastically altering the demographics. Not only that, but the suggestion is that they surrender this power, inside their own country, to Hamas, who attacks them with indiscriminate rockets and suicide bombers. Who in the world voluntarily surrenders their own country under those conditions?

    It really doesn’t bother me that there are Israelis or Jews who hold different opinions. It’s a free country. Why do you think this strains my imagination? As a person with Lebanese heritage who is apparently pro-Israel, when most of my extended family isn’t? You don’t think I know very well of Israelis that are very critical of Israel? What does that prove? That Israel defends freedom of speech, and dissension is possible without rival factions knocking on your door? Sounds fine to me.

    The musings about my name possibly being misleading are for the benefit of those who suspect I’m some kind of under-cover Israeli PR troll (ABC on the Beirut Spring thread).

    You mention you want a two-state solution. OK, so do I. Does that satisfactorily address the rights of Palestinians? Then I guess I haven’t sidestepped the rights of Palestinians either. Don’t forget to think about the rights of Israelis.

    Curtis seems to daydream about going back in time and stopping the creation Israel. It’s a little too late for that. Are you hoping to reverse the entire process? Do you imagine this can be done both peacefully and against the will of the Israeli majority? A fantasy, or self-delusion. Do you hold all current Israeli residents responsible for the creation of Israel?

    Two-state solution: Israelis and Palestinians keeps their rights, and control over their own nation. Arafat showed dissatisfaction with this plan before, and now Hamas won’t even think about it. Maybe it’ll work in the future, and both sides will be able to agree in good faith (the details are unimportant if the intentions are dishonest). On the other hand, if Palestinians want it all back, they can continue fighting, but it will degrade their living conditions due to the inevitable Israeli response.

    First implement the two-state solution, and let’s see if the two peoples can live side by side in peace.

  8. peoplesgeography
    20 November, 2006

    With respect to the two state solution, the suggestion was not in fact that I advocated two states as much as that I said while it was preferable on the face of it, the conditions are such that it is becoming less and less likely. To my mind, you seem to gloss over or ignore these conditions that Palestinians suffer and that Israel perpetrates. As already noted here, compromise would be required on both sides.

    To begin with, you assume that the bi-national plan won’t ever get assent by the current Jewish majority in Israel. Far from constituting circular logic, this plan takes into account current and evolving conditions and sees that the Jewish majority would need to be artificially maintained if demographic trends continue, with disastrous consequences.

    To go by your logic, we would be stuck in an unchanging timewarp akin to trying to claim, “but white South Africans will never act in their enlightened self-interest and willingly give up power”, “but slavery/ apartheid will never end”, “the Soviet Union will never cede its central power”, “the civil rights movement will never succeed”, and so on. The suggestion was not that this (a bi-national state) would happen suddenly; rather, it was giving due consideration to solutions that increasing numbers of people are thoughtfully proposing within the rubric of a just settlement of this conflict. Rather than being circular logic, it recognises that conditions change and allows for both evolution and entropy as Curtis has astutely noted.

    Moreover, to address your qualifier “under those conditions” – in all the historic occasions above, there was always both armed and peaceful resistance. Hamas is not an exception, and it also stuck to a recent ceasefire as it said it would. Again, compromise is required on both sides.

    Second, your implicit realpolitik view that “Israel would not willingly surrender its power within its own country”: I can see the logic to some degree, though it does gloss over the fact that part of it is Palestinians’ land too, and that power-sharing coexistence is made possible and successful within parameters that would see an end to Israel’s untenable occupation. Whatever we think about the occupation and what its end may or may not achieve, it can not continue forever.

    Third, nowhere do I see Curtis at all suggesting a reversal of the process. Its Israel’s future we are looking towards, but progress only occurs by understanding the past, something Curtis has demonstrated exceptionally well in his nuanced observations. Its a truism that understanding and learning from the past is crucial to examining this conflict and all politics; as Ralph Waldo Emerson has noted, “the use of history is to give value to the present hour.” We ignore the past at our peril.

    For me, you’ve relied upon untenable assumptions, demonstrably glossed over important points and set up straw men to refute. Of course, you are as much entitled to disagree with this appraisal as I am in giving it. I’m not saying my argument was perfect either, but what I am suggesting is that an effective debate or dialogue does not happen with a running of parallel arguments that does not address the others points. If you surmise this sounds like I think this encounter has run its course for these reasons and to avoid further circularity, you would be right. I’ve gleaned much from the statement of your position and I’m sure you have lively debates amongst the relatives with whom you say you dissent. Thank you for coming over to continue the thread and for your time.

  9. Norton
    26 November, 2006

    I don’t see how Israel and the Palestinian territories can proceed directly to a one-state solution. For a one-state solution to happen, the two would first have to make honest peace with each other under a two-state solution, then if it can be shown that they can live as neighbours and the trust can grow between the two, then maybe a one-state solution is possible. But you say the two-state solution is unlikely, and therefore you have to go directly the one-state, without building trust with two states first, without ending occupation of the territories first. That makes no sense.

    Anyways, to end a little more upbeat, here’s a Palestinian offer of ceasefire that the Israelis were only too happy to accept:

    Only a ceasefire, but it’s always nice to see.

  10. peoplesgeography
    26 November, 2006

    I agree, a ceasefire is good to see. The official Israeli response, as with the official PA-via-Abbas response, was far from speaking with one voice of course, but still this constitutes a small positive development.

    As for the ingredients for building trust, many need to go into the mix if it is to work, there is no single pathway or prescription. With two states versus one, there’s nowhere that says “you must build trust via two states first” and only that as some sort of immutable law via a predetermined trajectory.

    Nor does the logic of your necessary precondition of two states before one make sense: don’t you think that the successful achievement of two states would obviate calls for one state?

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This entry was posted on 13 November, 2006 by in Israel, Israel Watch, Palestine, Palestine Peace, Political Economy.

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