x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Israel and Palestinians can see the future in South Africa

Sooner or later Israelis and Palestinians will settle their differences, and when they do they can learn a lot from post-apartheid South Africa.

Israel's unequal governing structure is making the reality of life between the river and the sea a harsh one.

Israel continues entrenching settlements on the West Bank, and efforts to revive long-dead peace talks and the two-state solution - no doubt a topic of discussion during President Barack Obama's visit to Israel later this month - are going nowhere.

Today three categories of people exist under Israel's unequal governance. Based on ethnicity, some people enjoy full democratic rights. Others face institutionalised discrimination. And still others are living with no rights, under military occupation.

There are profound differences, but the governing system of Israel and Palestine looks increasingly like a form of the apartheid racial separation which operated in South Africa from 1948 until 1994.

But simple name-calling doesn't help the situation. On a recent tour of South Africa, I found that the most constructive comparison between the two countries wasn't Israel and apartheid South Africa, but rather Israel/Palestine and post-apartheid South Africa.

The South African government has proposed the origin labelling of goods produced in Israeli settlements, a sign that South Africa believes it has a role to play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Is Israel an apartheid state? The question has become hopelessly polarised in South Africa. The potentially-useful experience and knowledge held by many who experienced apartheid have been drowned out by bitter public fights between supporters of Palestine and friends of Israel.

Now more than ever, this fruitless dialogue should be replaced with a discussion of how South Africa was able to begin - and is continuing - to dismantle apartheid.

A cursory look at the latest news from Israel and Palestine demonstrates how constructive such a dialogue could be. Take, for example, the controversy over Israeli and Palestinian textbooks, after a recent study found both using racist language. During apartheid, textbooks with similarly racist depictions of the other were used widely in South African primary schools. When apartheid fell, what were the debates about the new textbooks, and who were the authors?

It doesn't end there. In Cape Town, urban planning done under the apartheid regime continues to play an important role in how the city functions. Urban planning was used to ensure racial separation, much in the same way that urban planning is being used in Jerusalem to siphon off as much land as possible for Israel and to create "facts on the ground".

Likewise, in the West Bank, the spatial planning of military occupation will have profound ramifications for Israel and Palestine when the day comes when the system of unequal governance is gone.

Instead of bickering over a label to describe the current situation, Israelis and Palestinians alike could benefit from learning how the fall of apartheid in South Africa continues to manifest itself today.

But the near future doesn't look bright. The Middle East is in the midst of profound changes which will soon have a direct effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egypt's new leadership has demonstrated that it is not afraid to insinuate itself into the Palestinian-Israeli issue, both as a mechanism for internal diversion and as an attempt to bolster its own regional importance.

Syria's large weapons arsenal, including its chemical weapons, could soon be floating around the Middle East or wind up in the hands of Hizbollah. And the Syrian-Israeli border on the occupied Golan Heights could soon be a hot spot of violence. This is not to mention that Hamas has recently fired rockets into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time during the last round of Gaza violence.

With these profound changes taking shape, Israelis have held an election for a new parliament. Instead of looking for a defence-policy strongman or a clear message of security as the regional landscape changes around them, Israelis went to the polls with domestic issues on their minds.

Iran and Syria were noticeably absent from exit polling data as Israelis made their election about taxes in Tel Aviv and whether ultra-orthodox men should have to join the military. Instead of electing a general from the military establishment, Israeli voters made former television journalist Yair Lapid the kingmaker.

This demonstrates that the security narrative inside Israeli society is not as strong as it may seem when seen from the West, and it also shows that the status quo of occupation and unequal governance has entrenched itself in the Israeli mindset.

Like many white South Africans at the height of the apartheid system, Israelis are desperate to feel normal. They understand that the situation with the Palestinians is not ideal, but see no other way. Therefore they prefer to pretend that their country is like Spain or Greece, where the most pressing issues are those related to the financial situation of their society.

The reality is that this dangerous thinking is harming Israel's ability to see the legitimate national security dangers that are looming on the horizon.

Ultimately, Israel's system of unequal governance will be dismantled, along with the intellectual scaffolding employed to support it. This is where South Africa's continuing process of unravelling apartheid can inform and assist Israelis and Palestinians in a constructive though rather painful manner.

The time for this debate is now, before the coming storm of transformation shakes the Middle East.


Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah