Not an ‘apartheid state’ - but is that good enough?
If Israel is to survive, that will be achieved by courageous policy, not debate about historical analogies
Yair Lapid is surely right that in 2022 Israel will increasingly be portrayed as a so-called “apartheid state.” He’s also right to be concerned: it’s a scurrilous false analogy that knowledgeable and serious journalists should reject – but how many pass that bar?
As Lapid is now the foreign minister, we can expect Israel’s messaging to focus on this slander. That’s reasonable enough, but I’d save some energy for the real battle as well. If Israel is to survive, that will be achieved by courageous policy, not debate about historical analogies.
For what it’s worth, the argument against the apartheid label is clear enough. Apartheid was an arrangement devised by and specifically for South Africa that featured (according to Wikipedia) a “system of social stratification (in which) white citizens had the highest status, followed by Asians and Coloureds, then black Africans.” The obsessive race classification was deigned to enshrine dominance by the whites who accounted for about a tenth of the population. For the 40-plus years this lasted, blacks were denied the vote as well as many other basic rights.
In Israel, Arabs may be second-class citizens in various ways but they can certainly vote (in elections that are not falsified, as they often are in the Arab world). Their status is not unlike that of blacks in the United States: an underprivileged minority, but not the victims of apartheid in any way that is true to the term.
Moreover, Israel can say, the Jews are not a race; although in the Zionist view they are certainly an ethnicity, and many studies suggest a widely shared genetic base, the people as a whole is visibly multiracial (and can be joined by religious conversion).
All this would be more of a slam dunk if not for the nastiness in the West Bank. In this territory, Israel indeed applies different legal systems to Jewish settlers (who live under Israeli law in one form or another) and to Palestinians.
Nonetheless, I personally rejected the apartheid comparison when I was the Associated Press bureau chief in Jerusalem in the early 2000s, and later on, for most of the past decade, as the Cairo-based Middle East Editor. Perhaps it was a literalist bent that made me recoil from cheapening the real apartheid, much as I wouldn’t apply “Holocaust” to any genocide.
I viewed it as part of the wider caution one needed to exercise with the propaganda that swirls nonstop in the Israeli-Palestinian swamp. From the Palestinians, one finds a steadfast browbeating to always refer to Jewish settlements (including Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem) as “illegal under international law.” From Israel come insatiable demands to lower the bar on “terrorist” and “terrorism”; I thought we had reached the height of absurdity with “balloon terrorism” from Hamas, only to find “diplomatic terrorism” coming from poor Mahmoud Abbas. I ended up pleasing no one but myself, yet I stuck to my guns, until I was disarmed.
I caution Israel’s current crop of hardy propagandists that not everyone is going to be such a stickler.
Part of the problem is that most of the world’s population was born after the fall of actual apartheid. It’s hard to get people to care about the finer points of a thing when they cannot remember the thing itself (nor probably point to its location on a map). So dull are the memories of South African apartheid that Israel will need to work very hard indeed to keep the term from becoming attached in the minds of many people (especially America’s liberal students) primarily with the West Bank.
So a series of secondary and rather leaky arguments will be wheeled out as well.
First, that Israel twice offered the Palestinians far-reaching partition deals to no avail. This is true, but outdated to the point of irrelevance. Israeli governments since 2009 have not publicly offered anything of worth, and the Israeli right these days treats even a meeting with Abbas (just this week, by Defense Minister Benny Gantz) as an act of treason. Still, the Palestinians royally screwed up; this argument rates a B-minus.
Second, that the West Bank is not Israel, so that even if what happens there is awful it somehow shouldn’t count. That will be seen by many journalists as sleight of hand since Israel has controlled the territory for 54 years and this is not about to change; it builds cities there for Jews and one of its universities is deep inside the territory; and the settlers vote, unlike Israelis living abroad. If Israel hasn’t formally annexed the territory it is for fear of turning 3 million Palestinians into voting Israeli Arabs. This argument rates a C-minus.
Third, that the West Bank Palestinians can vote for the Palestinian Authority set up in the 1990s. The problem here is twofold: the PA has mainly municipal-level authority and the real power is with Israel; and in any case the PA has not held elections in ages. That the PA areas are islands surrounded by IDF-controlled territory evokes the sad parallel of Bantustans. This argument rates a D.
Fourth, that many of the Palestinians really are terrorists, and if they weren’t then the oppression – families rounded up in the middle of the night, civilians blocked at checkpoints from getting to the hospital – would be less necessary. To understand why this argument rates an F, consult the history of any military occupation in recent history (and yes, I know many of them covet Israel proper; it changes nothing).
Lastly, Israel will claim it’s being picked on, and that other malefactors around the world are worse. Israel is indeed held to a higher standard, essentially of the West, and it is asking not to be. Rather than rating a grade, this sad argument begs the question: Zionists, is this the sum of your ambition? Where is your light unto the nations?
No, none of these arguments will work. Not even if the presenter is as quick-witted and silver-tongued as Lapid (or even the otherworldly Benjamin Netanyahu). They won’t work because while text of the apartheid comparison is wrong, the subtext is right. The subtext is that the West Bank situation is a disgrace. Beat back the apartheid terrorism, and another word will come.
Meanwhile, even as we mobilize Israel’s finest to fight the apartheid terrorism, real terrorism will eventually explode again. The signs of it are visible already in the field.
This predicament will not end by scoring points in debates. It will probably end in one of two ways: Israel will initiate a partition, or the Palestinians will dismantle the PA and demand to be annexed.
(This article was originally published in the Times of Israel)