Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Comparing Israel and South Africa and its limits

Last night I accompanied a friend to watch ‘Roadmap to Apartheid’, a documentary which draws together the experience of apartheid in South Africa with the discrimination and oppression visited by Israel on the Palestinians.  The analogies were well done, with footage from South Africa before 1994 set alongside with that from Israel and the occupied territories.  Images of checkpoints, soldiers checking permits, beating up and shooting protestors were all used to reinforce the idea that Israel is busy introducing an effective apartheid state.

Anyone working in academia will be familiar with the charge.  To this are increasing numbers of solidarity activists and supporters and sympathisers of the Palestinian cause who are making the link.  Perhaps the most visible expression of this analogy is that of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement that has grown up in recent years – and Israeli reaction and paranoia that they may one day be labelled a pariah state in the same way that South Africa was (hence the draconian legislation relating to the BDS which exists within Israel today).

I don’t have a problem with the comparison: equating what’s happening to the Palestinians with what happened to black people in South Africa may be legitimate (the UN definition of apartheid may certainly be applicable in Israel/Palestine); but what I have a problem with is where this leads.  In response to South African apartheid, international critics encouraged boycotts and sanctions against Pretoria, which is largely felt to have crippled the regime and brought an end to white rule.  So it goes that if Israel is becoming an apartheid state then the same approach – promoting boycotts and sanctions – will eventually bring Israel to its knees and end the occupation.

But this is too simplistic.  I’m not sure that one person’s decision (alright, even a community’s decision) not to buy South African oranges led to apartheid’s fall.  Certainly, the boycott and sanction movement provided a moral dimension to the opposition.  But what is forgotten was that apartheid’s fall owed more to hardnosed matters of realpolitik than any idealistic opposition.  Politically, until the late 1980s South Africa could count on a number of international friends (remember Margaret Thatcher?) for support.  Such alliances were based on apartheid South Africa as a partner in the Cold War.  When communism collapsed there was no longer any reason for the West to tolerate the repugnant nature of the regime.  Economically, credit agencies and international banks had begun o downgrade South Africa in the mid-1980s, seeing it as growing business risk.  For very practical reasons then, the apartheid rulers concluded that their days were numbered and they needed to get out while they still could.

If we look at the case of Israel, the comparison is less apparent.  Economically, Israel has weathered various challenges thrown at it, absorbing the structural adjustments of the 1980s which saw it transform from state planning in industry and agriculture during the 1960s and 1970s to a more market-oriented and service based economy in the 1990s.  Politically, it continues to be seen as a valuable ally in the eyes of the US (and probably Europe?), as the only stable ‘democracy’ in the region and especially in the midst of the uncertainty resulting from the Arab Spring.  Coupled with that, there are strong veto players on the US in the form of the Israel lobby (and less so in European capitals – although the EU’s inability to cobble together a common line for its 27 members is probably more relevant in that regard) which can also put a dampener on any potential shift in external support.

In sum then, I feel that we should be wary of drawing the wrong conclusions from the apartheid analogy.  This was evident in the Q&A session which followed the screening.  One young Palestinian woman, expressing her frustration that so many different attempts had been tried to bring an end to the occupation – the popular resistance of the first intifada, the armed struggle of the second intifada, suicide attacks, etc – asked what was to be done.  The Stop the Wall representative who responded appeared to draw the wrong lessons.  He said that Palestinians needed to organise, mobilise and build links.  OK, this is true, especially as they build up a moral case, but these in themselves will not be sufficient.  Ultimately what will determine an end to the occupation will be when the stronger party in this conflict – i.e. the Israelis – realise it’s not in their interests for it to continue.  But that day looks very far off.  At present, there is no sense of self-doubt within the leadership or across society.  The occupation has been ongoing for 40-odd years (or 60-odd depending on your view of when it began) and the costs have not fallen sufficiently hard on Israel to warrant a rethink.  That’s not to say that Palestinian resistance isn’t important; certainly it can contribute to a sense of self-worth and solidarity, both domestically as well as internationally.  But it will be a slow and draw out process.

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