Many Jews will reject the warning a week ago by the last white South African president, FW de Klerk, that Israel is heading towards apartheid, that unless it urgently begins implementing the two-state solution, it will plunge into the ‘abyss’ South Africa experienced. Interviewed by a journalist in Tel Aviv while attending an anti-racism conference at the Berl Katznelson Foundation, he said Israel is not today an apartheid state.
“But,” he said, “if the two-state solution is not implemented, and if, in such a situation, the Jews have special rights while the Palestinians live as second-class citizens, Israel will become an apartheid state… As an outsider, it seems to me that the window of opportunity for the two-state solution is about to close. You might miss this chance.”
Who better than De Klerk would recognise apartheid? He was the last Afrikaner president of apartheid South Africa, who stunned the world in 1990 by announcing freedom fighter Nelson Mandela’s release after 27 years in jail, unbanning of African liberation movements, and dismantling of the racist system. He won a Nobel Peace Prize.
A common response to the ‘apartheid-Israel’ argument is that comparing Israel and South Africa is wrong. The latter had only itself to worry about. It never faced terrorism, hostile enemies and religious conflict endemic to Israel’s situation in the volatile Middle East. There was no ISIS, no external enemies poised to destroy it. Furthermore, several genuine attempts by Israel to create a Palestinian state all ended disastrously, including the assassination of Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and repeated rejections by the Palestinians.
The ‘knife intifada’ currently raging in Israel will increase enactment of more rules separating Palestinians from Israelis and removing more of their rights. How can Israel prevent a Palestinian state from becoming another jihadist entity right in its heart? Is de Klerk naïve about Israel’s situation? South African solutions are not automatically transferrable.
Global politics have also changed since De Klerk and Mandela led South Africa into democracy through their sheer power of great leadership.
But therein lies the nub: it is ultimately about great leadership. Watershed moments in human history are defined more by great leaders who rose to the occasion than the circumstances ordinary people saw as insurmountable. When he was elected SA President, De Klerk represented the right wing in a right wing white party, yet he led the party to the agreement with the ANC.
“They voted for me because they thought I was the most conservative of all candidates. They were wrong about me. A leader’s job is not to follow opinion polls. Leadership requires taking an initiative, a vision, a true aspiration to improve the situation, and the ability to convince your voters that the change in the status quo will benefit them in the long-run. That’s what I did on the white side, and that’s what Mandela did on the black side. We both did it while facing harsh criticism from our camps.”
Israel has had great leaders, as have Arab countries. For example, a few years after the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli PM Menachem Begin joined with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat – who had sent Egypt’s army into battle, believing it would destroy Israel – to establish peace between their countries, which has lasted nearly four decades.
Sadly, the Palestinians haven’t produced a leader with the willingness and power to meet the challenge. PLO leader Yasser Arafat was not the man; nor is PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Is Netanyahu made of that ‘right stuff’? He officially favours two states, although his actions often point elsewhere. If a suitable Palestinian leader arose, could he meet the challenge as De Klerk did with Mandela and forge a historic new path?
Some believe popular Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the first and second intifadas who is serving jail time in Israel, might be the one. Could he, like Mandela, make decisions from prison no one else dares make on the outside?
“The lesson we learned many years ago, before we freed Mandela,” said de Klerk, “was that you have to negotiate with whoever has the support of the majority.”
Imagine the scene: Netanyahu and Barghouti shaking hands to thunderous applause as they receive the Nobel Peace Prize, watched by billions of people, for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. Is it naïve, wishful thinking?
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on December 2, 2015)