Worried about apartheid? Too late, Mr Olmert, it’s already here

March 24, 2009

Tony Karon [The National] 22 March 2009 - In one of her last acts as US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice had Nelson Mandela’s name removed from America’s terrorist watch list. Many Americans were shocked to learn that their favourite former political prisoner had ever been deemed a terrorist.


Tony Karon [The National] 22 March 2009 - In one of her last acts as US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice had
Nelson Mandela’s name removed from America’s terrorist watch list. Many
Americans were shocked to learn that their favourite former political
prisoner had ever been deemed a terrorist.


That is because they had
forgotten, or were too young to know, that the US under Ronald Reagan –
like Britain under Margaret Thatcher – had backed the apartheid regime
in South Africa as a Cold War ally.

Isolating South Africa through sanctions and boycotts was certainly not
the choice of Mrs Thatcher or Mr Reagan, but their governments were
eventually forced to take action by the outrage of their own
electorates at the suffering apartheid inflicted. The international
anti-apartheid movement began at the grassroots among religious,
community and labour groups, but it grew sufficiently powerful to force
governments to distance themselves from a regime that they had viewed
sympathetically. And that is a lesson that terrifies Israel’s leaders.

Israeli government officials have spoken openly since the Gaza conflict
of their growing sense of isolation. Despite their most strenuous PR
efforts, the 1,417 Palestinian deaths they caused in Gaza (compared
with 13 Israelis, four by “friendly fire”) made it hard to sell the
idea that Israel was the victim in the conflict. Israel’s narrative did
not fit the images of the Gaza clash. It’s hard to convince people that
the guys with the F-16s and Apache helicopters and the tanks are little
David, while those facing them with side-arms, mortars and a handful of
improvised unguided missiles are actually Goliath.

Coddled in their own narrative in which they are the eternal victims,
Israelis are not accustomed to finding themselves the focus of
international moral opprobrium. And they see in it a mortal threat.

The recent Gaza donor conference at Sharm el Sheikh was a familiar
exercise of nations pledging large amounts of money while respecting
taboos imposed by Israel that effectively block reconstruction. That
was in marked contrast to the aid convoy led by the maverick British MP
George Galloway that arrived in Gaza two weeks ago, comprising some 100
trucks and ambulances loaded with medical and humanitarian supplies
funded and collected at grassroots level in churches, mosques, trade
union branches and community groups all over Britain.

Sure, the amount of aid delivered was small potatoes relative to the
need, but the gesture showed that hundreds of thousands of ordinary
Britons no longer accept their government’s equivocation on the fate of
the Palestinians. That is exactly how the international anti-apartheid
movement was born, back when the governments of the US and Britain were
happy to concur with Pretoria that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist.

In a remarkable interview last November, the Israeli prime minister
Ehud Olmert cautioned that unless it could achieve a two-state solution
quickly, Israel would “face a South African-style struggle for equal
voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is
finished”. The reason, he said, was that Israel would be
internationally isolated. “The Jewish organisations, which are our
power base in America, will be the first to come out against us because
they will say they cannot support a state that does not support
democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.”

Jewish communities in western countries have long been Israel’s trump
card against international pressure, because they mobilise support for
Israel and restrain critics by painting opposition to Israel’s policies
as motivated by hostility to Jews – a toxic accusation in a world still
sensitive to the horrors of the Holocaust. But what was palpable during
the Gaza conflict was the diminished enthusiasm of young Jewish people
abroad for Israeli militarism, and the increasing willingness of many
to openly challenge Israel.

This change is personified by Jon Stewart, the Jewish-American comic
whose Daily Show is the premier vehicle of contemporary American
political satire. Stewart mercilessly mocked American politicians for
their slavish echoing of the Israeli narrative during the Gaza
conflict. “It’s the Möbius strip of issues,” he sarcastically enthused.
“There’s only one side!” Clearly, the younger, hipper Jewish liberal
mainstream exemplified by Stewart intends to judge Israel on the basis
of its actions, rather than express morally blind ethnic solidarity.

Even as Israeli officials admitted last week that they were hoping to
“rebrand” Israel’s image abroad, the Israeli media were reporting that
six Israeli soldiers who had fought in Gaza were alleging that men in
their units had indiscriminately killed Palestinian civilians because
of what they said were permissive rules of engagement. There is only so
much that “rebranding” can achieve when it is the product, rather than
its packaging, that is at the root of the problem.

And that is where the apartheid warning used by Mr Olmert and other
Israeli advocates of a two-state solution becomes an unintended
confession. It is not some demographic milestone that will tip Israel
into the realm of apartheid, because apartheid is a qualitative rather
than a quantitative term: it refers to a situation in which a whole
category of people were denied the rights of citizenship in the state
that ruled over them. South Africa’s apartheid would have been no more
acceptable to the world had black people comprised 45 per cent of the
population rather than 80 per cent. And since 1967, the Palestinian
population of the West Bank and Gaza have been living under the control
of a state that denies them citizenship.

What Mr Olmert and others are really saying, without realising it, is
that Israel is already in an apartheid situation – and that if it
doesn’t end that situation soon, the world will notice and begin to
respond accordingly.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst and editor, who blogs at Rootless Cosmopolitan

March 24, 2009


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