TERRA INCOGNITA: Israel’s self-fulfilling ‘apartheid’ analogy

The “Israel apartheid” claim has been around since before South African apartheid ended

A CYCLE that feeds the apartheid analogy. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A CYCLE that feeds the apartheid analogy.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s self-fulfilling ‘apartheid’ analogy In 2010 former prime minister Ehud Barak gave a speech in Herzliya claiming that as long as a Palestinian state did not exist Israel would become “non-Jewish or non-democratic.” According to reports he went on to claim that “if this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.” The Guardian reports that this analogy would have been “unthinkable for a senior Israeli figure only a few years ago and is a rare admission of the gravity of the deadlocked peace process.” In June 2017 Barak made similar comments to German television, claiming Israel was on the “slippery slope” to apartheid.
On July 12 at The New York Times Thomas Friedman wrote that the US president should ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “[Y]ou win every debate, but meanwhile every day the separation of Israel from the Palestinians grows less likely, putting Israel on a ‘slippery slope toward apartheid.’” The “apartheid Israel” story has become an ever-present cliché. In 2015 anti-apartheid activist Denis Goldberg told South Africans that “there is no doubt in my mind that Israel is an apartheid state” at an Israel Apartheid Week event in Johannesburg. He noted “you don’t need to be like South Africa to be an apartheid state.” Not only are there hundreds of events worldwide for Israel Apartheid Week, but a who’s-who of the Israeli Left has also embraced this narrative.
Shulamit Aloni in 2007 wrote a piece declaring that “yes, there is apartheid in Israel.”
The “Israel apartheid” claim has been around since before South African apartheid ended. In March 1988 an ad appeared in the New York Times calling for an “end all aid to apartheid Israel.” Even before that Uri Davis, an academic and activist, wrote a book called Israel: An Apartheid State in 1986 and founded a group called the Movement Against Israeli Apartheid in Palestine. Ben White authored Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide in 2009.
Want to see the cliché up front? Just visit Haaretz’s website and type in “apartheid state” or “Israeli apartheid” and there’s hundreds of results, many of them op-eds decrying in one way or another the “slippery slope” and pushing the narrative that unless Israel leaves the West Bank it will become an apartheid state.
The problem is that this is all a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you read the accounts of how Israel is becoming an apartheid state you are presented with the dog-eared story of Israel being either Jewish or democratic.
If Israel seeks to preserve itself as a Jewish- majority country it must separate from the Palestinians, if it wants to be democratic it must give them citizenship, if it wants both, namely to not have a Palestinian state and not giving voting rights to Palestinians, then it ceases to be democratic and becomes apartheid. Voila. Quite simple, right? US secretary of state John Kerry said in December 2016 that the two-state approach is “the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.” He spoke passionately about preserving Israel as a democracy, “if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic, it cannot be both.”
But the voices saying Israel is perpetually at risk of becoming apartheid, or who have warned about this for years, know it is a self-fulfilling narrative. They know the map of the West Bank and they know that their dreams of divorce or a two-state solution is largely bunk.
People like the apartheid analogy because it’s an easy way to condemn Israel. It also gives them a self-fulfilling hope. Apartheid in South Africa ended, so therefore if we label Israel “apartheid,” then an international boycott will result and Israel’s government will give in and a binational state will arise. Israelis who talk about apartheid ostensibly don’t want to get to that point, but many secretly think the country has passed the point of no return. They embrace the analogy in the Western press because it gets them applause.
They are all “daring” to be so original, even though there are thousands of Israeli voices saying “apartheid.” If you say something enough, eventually it sticks. This is the campaign of the “Israel apartheid week” events. Their view of Israeli apartheid isn’t even predicated on two states; for them the nature of Israel as a nation-state is unacceptable. Their real motivation is to create the post-apartheid Israel, which means dismantling Israel as a Jewish state.
Confronting the “apartheid” narrative are some people who argue that the term is being abused, that those who employ this term are abusing the memory of South Africans. Some try to debate the “apartheid” story by listing reasons Israel isn’t the same as South Africa. They claim the Palestinian demographics are lower than Jewish demographics west of the Jordan, or argue that Arabs have voting rights in Israel and there are no “pass laws” or other aspects of apartheid’s legalized racism in South Africa. Opponents point to the West Bank, to Hebron or “apartheid roads” and “apartheid buses.”
The problem is that the apartheid analogy has not helped the Israeli Left, which uses it to scare Israel into new peace gestures.
They thought that if they said “apartheid” loud enough Israeli voters would care. But Israeli voters see the “apartheid” story as one made for foreign audiences.
The main narrative is that Israel must unilaterally divorce from the Palestinians.
This was at the heart of the “save Jewish Jerusalem” campaign that Haim Ramon and other politicians have written about.
“We must return the 28 villages to the West Bank,” Ramon wrote in 2015. He was talking about Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
Under this logic Israel, which annexed these neighborhoods decades ago, will now un-annex them. Oddly few see that as similar to the Bantustan policy in South Africa, where the government attempted to reduce the number of black citizens by giving them “independent” states.
For Palestinians the apartheid analogy is inviting because it means time is on their side. If Israel is moving toward apartheid, all they have to do is sit and wait and eventually Israel will dismantle itself. This also doesn’t provide any incentive for “peace” gestures, since all they have to do is wait long enough and rather than receiving a small Palestinian state in the West Bank, they get the whole thing, which is what the Palestinian nationalist movements want anyway.
Israelis who buy into the apartheid story set a trap for themselves. The more they talk about it, the more it seems to happen and the more they encourage Palestinians to also see it that way, the less incentive there is to do anything about it. The Right in Israel simply doesn’t care. For some reason they don’t see the Palestinian demographic as an issue and they either don’t care if Israel is labeled “apartheid” or they think the slander is ridiculous.
So you have four sides to the apartheid box. An Israeli Left that created a self-fulfilling prophecy and can’t dig itself out of the hole. Smiling Palestinians wringing their hands in delight that Israel will soon go the way of Pretoria. Activists abroad who hate Israel and think they’ve found the perfect slander and rightists in Israel who don’t care. In Israel’s favor is the fact that despite labels, the country seems to be doing fine and it increasingly has connections with countries that care less about accusations against it