Israel and Apartheid

The division wall through Jerusalem under construction, 2005.  Photo by Yrstrly.
The division wall through Jerusalem under construction, 2005. Photo by Yrstrly.

Back in the ‘Six, the author Jostein Gaarder caused a bit of a storm with a ranting criticism of Israel that bordered on the anti-Semitic. At the time, I wrote a brace of posts trying to tease out what might the legitimate parts of his argument, from those in which he confused Israel with Jewishness and slipped into a lazy racism.  In particular, I wrote about how Israel might be termed an ‘apartheid’ state, an idea which attracted some no small criticism in the comments.  Katy Newton led the charge; here’s a flavour:

Robert, you disappoint me. … This is just another example of the typical overstatement that characterises current criticism of Israel. The comparisons with South Africa are not apt here at all. … There is undoubtedly racism and prejudice directed at Israeli-born Arabs but to say that the position of Israeli Arabs is the same as the position of black South Africans under apartheid rule is utter, utter arse. … My patience and goodwill are sorely tried when Jostein Gaardner publishes that sort of “apartheid state” claptrap and when intelligent men like you promote and support it.

After that I conceded that it was a divisive and not entirely analogous term that it was best not to use… and subsequently risked the ire of those on the other side of the debate who thought I was being too timid, too much of a weather vane.  It was a good example of a robust online debate that still remained relatively civil (back in my heyday of blogging, when I still had time to argue with all-comers, and before my readership was decimated by a period of downtime).  But the legacy was ultimately that I became much more equivocal on all matters Israeli, and much less inclined to use words like ‘apartheid’ in that context.

Yet recently, in relatively quick succession, I have happened across three instances of that usage with regards to the Israel-Palestine problem.  Its worth bookmarking them here, and perhaps revisiting the argument I had with Katy et al, nearly four years ago.

First, I noted back in February that Ehud Barak, former Israeli Prime Minister, no less, broke the “apartheid barrier” in a speech to the Herzliya Conference:

If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic… If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.

Its important to note that this is a slightly different concept to that discussed earlier on this blog.  What K-Newt took issue with was my characterisation of the current state of Israel as practising apartheid within its internationally recognised borders (i.e. not the West Bank, Gaza, Golan &ct):

But Israeli Arabs have a vote, they stand for government – as a result of which there are Arab political parties in the Knesset; they are able to apply for the same jobs as Jewish Israelis, they teach at the universities, some choose to serve in the army, they own property, they are not forced to live in certain areas – they have the same civil rights as Jewish Israelis.

Quite right.  There is clearly a chasm of difference in the political rights experienced by Arab Israelis, and the Palestinians of the West Bank/Gaza. If you understand Israel to be a country which excludes these territories, then the country is nothing like apartheid.  There may be racism and prejudice, and organisations like Adalah would say that there are institutional biases against the Arab population… but at least everyone has a vote, which is a world away from the arrangements in pre-1994 South Africa.

On the other hand, Ehud Barak’s comments refer to the idea of a ‘Greater Israel’ which includes the West Bank and Gaza.  He is trying to debunk the idea that a comprehensive Med-to-Jordan state (still the goal of many hard-line Zionists) could be a feasible Jewish state.  More recently, John J. Mearsheimer expanded on this idea at a conference with an altogether different ideological starting point, the Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture (Sharabi was an academic, pro-Paletinian activist and anti-Zionist, while Herzliya was the ideological father of political Zionism).  He says that a single state solution is not politically practical, and that there is no political will for establishing a viable two-state solution.  The current state of limbo will remain.  Unfortunately, this liminal situation denies the Palestinians a share in the political sovereignty over those who wield power over them.  The reality is, that their economy, their energy supply, their food supply and their security are all controlled by a government and a parliament for whom they cannot vote.  Such power (says Mearsheimer) will never be properly transferred to anyone for whom they can vote. They are destined to be serfs.

If we are being honest and practical, words like ‘nation’, ‘state’, ‘country’ or even ‘Authority’ do not describe the West Bank and Gaza.  Instead, we are left grappling for words like ‘ghetto’, ‘enclave’ (charitable) or even ‘Bantustan’ to convey the political and social situation of the people that live in these places.  Many people claim that the Palestinians brought this on themselves, because they rejected opportunities offered by previous Israeli Prime Ministers in the 1990s, or because they elected the murderous and racist Hamas faction to power.  I think such a stance is enormously unsympathetic to ordinary Palestinian people.  But even if it were fair; and even if one refused to use the word ‘occupation’ to describe the current reality of the West Bank; one cannot deny that the Israeli government still wields incredible, disproportionate power over these territories.  However the decision was made, this is the outcome.  And if this power relationship is not counter-balanced with a Knesset vote, then one has a huge civil rights failure in the space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  And if that civil rights failure is based upon ethnicity (which it is, because Israeli settlers in the West Bank retain their vote), then we are nearing ‘apartheid’.  Since some Arab Israelis, living in places like Haifa or Tel Aviv, may retain the vote, then perhaps formal use of the term can be staved off for a while.  But the longer the situation continues, the more this label will stick.  The fact that people like Ehud Barak have used it (whatever the context) is a tacit admission that the term is legitimate and acceptable.

Finally, and perhaps most shockingly, there is the claim that Israel became a key ally of Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s.  Max Blumenthal reviews The Unspoken Alliance by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, calling it “the most authoritative account to date of Israel’s scandalous dealings with the apartheid regime of South Africa”.  Embattled and isolated following the 1973 war, Israel entered into a security pact with South Africa, supplying $200m worth of weapons to its new ally. I don’t think this proves that all along Israeli politicians have been plotting to bring about apartheid in Israel too, but it is a unfortunate, uncomfortable and shameful chapter in Israeli history that lends even more rhetorical weight to the apartheid charge.

The tragedy of all this is that Israel as a single secular nation would not be at all bad. The ancient cities would look infinitely more beautiful without the concrete walls snaking through the streets. Tourism would flourish, and Jerusalem could become a cosmopolitan centre that could compete with London or New York. A single state would be a place where the Palestinians were treated as native citizens and not as aliens to be corralled and managed. The hatred and anger they currently show towards the world would dissipate. As we saw in South Africa, there was no widespread massacre of the whites, no settling of scores… and now they’re hosting the World Cup.

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