[News] Taken for a Ride by the Israeli Left

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 24 13:30:37 EST 2007


January 24, 2007

A Response to Uri Avnery

Taken for a Ride by the Israeli Left


Uri Avnery is a human rights crusader of venerable standing. He has 
fought, written, published and campaigned for Palestinian rights for 
some sixty years. He has stood on the political barricades and faced 
down bulldozers to defend Palestinians from Israeli military abuse. 
His articles, books, and magazine denounced Israel's seizure of 
Palestinian land before most of the "new historians" learned to 
write. He even denounces legalized discrimination against Palestinian 
Israelis in uncompromising terms and has called for Israel to become 
"a state of all its citizens", although still retaining a large 
Jewish majority (e.g., see his recent "What Makes Sammy Run?"). As a 
founder of the peace group Gush Shalom, he remains the recognized 
godfather of liberal Zionism and no one doubts his sincerity in 
insisting on a two-state solution.

Given all this, it may seem odd that many people working hard for a 
stable peace in Israel-Palestine find Mr. Avnery so misguided on some 
basic issues.

The reason stems from his moral contradictions, all too common to 
liberal Zionism: that is, while taking an unflinching moral stand 
against racist abuses of Palestinians, he somehow drops the same 
principles in assuming that Israel itself has a right to preserve its 
"Jewish character" at the expense of Palestinian rights. For it is 
all too obvious that sustaining an "overwhelming" Jewish majority in 
Israel, essential to preserving its "Jewish character," requires that 
Israel sustain a whole cluster of racist practices, such as giant 
Walls to keep people from mixing and not allowing Palestinian exiles to return.

Liberal Zionists who cling to Mr. Avnery's analyses consistently trip 
over this moral fallacy. They want the occupation to end and find 
oppression of Palestinians morally abhorrent, and some even believe 
that discrimination against Palestinian Arabs must end. But they 
don't want Israel's status as a state run for only one ethnic group 
to end. They must therefore endorse whatever discrimination is deemed 
essential to preserving Israel's Jewish majority, particularly in 
keeping those Palestinians expelled from what is now Israel from ever 
coming back. In this view, Israel itself is morally okay--a 
"miracle," as David Grossman recently put it--or it would be okay if 
its leaders hadn't stupidly stumbled into military occupation after 
the 1967 war.

The result of this conundrum is moral chaos. While blatant ravings 
about ethnic cleansing by racists like Avigdor Lieberman are 
repellent, the earlier ethnic cleansing that gave birth to Israel is 
considered acceptable--a convulsion of war violence that has (it is 
never explained how) been morally transcended. The solution, in this 
view, is not to redress that founding sin but simply to stabilize 
Jewish statehood, which is understood mostly as relieving 
Jewish-Israeli fear of attack or annihilation. Recognizing that some 
modicrum of justice is required to achieve this "peace", the 
liberal-Zionist goal is to create a Palestinian state next door 
(safely demilitarized, of course, and not necessarily within the 1948 
green line).

It takes a special kind of denial to hold onto this worldview, 
especially in light of fresh histories like Ilan Pappe's The Ethnic 
Cleansing of Palestine, which demolish the soothing fantasy that 
Israel's history of ethnic cleansing was an accident of war. This 
isn't surprising in itself: nationalist myths everywhere dismantle 
slowly. But Mr. Avnery does not fall into the classic category. He 
exposed Zionist crimes before anyone else. Yet he has never lost his 
affection for Jewish statehood or his dedication to preserving 
Israel's Jewish majority in Israel. He knows that, in 1948, Zionist 
troops ruthlessly terrorized and expelled hundreds of thousands of 
defenceless Palestinians from their villages and threw them out of 
the country. But he believes that the agenda of preserving the 
Jewish-Israeli society that he treasures not only mandates but grants 
moral authority to not allowing them back.

It is from this muddle of contradictory tenets that Mr. Avnery 
approaches the "apartheid" charge in President Carter's best-selling 
Palestine: Peace or Apartheid?

Mr. Avnery's argument against the apartheid analogy is not that 
Israeli state policies toward the Palestinians are not racist. He 
agrees that the occupation is racist and that the settlements and the 
Wall are creating a Bantustan Palestinian state. He endorses the term 
"apartheid" to describe Israeli policy in the West Bank. He also 
argues what is incontestably true: that many people treat the 
comparison of Israel with South Africa too casually and commit errors 
of logic. (His "Eskimo" comparison, about chewing water, is an 
uncomfortably antiquarian reference to the Inuit but makes the 
point). This care we endorse: genuine differences distinguish South 
Africa and Israel that do require careful consideration.

But Mr. Avnery's own analysis includes glaring logical and factual 
errors, stemming partly from a fundamental misunderstanding of what 
apartheid was and how it worked. He seems to think apartheid was an 
extreme version of Jim Crow, in which blacks were subordinated while 
being incorporated into a white society. In fact, apartheid was a 
system of racial domination based, crucially, on the notion of 
physical separation. The doctrines, policies, and collective 
psychologies of the Israeli and South African systems were much more 
similar than he recognizes and it is vital to spell these out.

Mr. Avnery's main argument stems from his most profound 
misconception. He warns that a campaign for South African-style 
unification in Israel-Palestine would only trigger new ethnic 
cleansing, because brooding Jewish anxiety about the "demographic 
threat" (too many non-Jews) would inspire Israeli reactionaries to 
forcibly expel the entire Palestinian population. Yet he considers 
this risk special to Israel, on grounds that it didn't exist in South 
Africa: "no White would have dreamt of ethnic cleansing. Even the 
racists understood that the country could not exist without the Black 
population." Yet a key feature of apartheid was forcible population 
transfers. Celebrated books have been written about the forced 
removal of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and lands 
in an attempt to create a "white South Africa" in which blacks would 
be allowed only as "guest workers". So widespread was the policy of 
"forced removals" in order to "whiten" South Africa that we will 
probably never know how many people were really moved; the campaigns 
were far more systematic attempts at "ethnic cleansing" than anything 
attempted in Eastern Europe. If Mr. Avnery thinks apartheid had 
nothing to do with population transfer, he does not even vaguely 
understand apartheid.

Mr. Avnery supports this flawed analysis by offering four reasons why 
the apartheid comparison should not guide a solution in 
Israel-Palestine. First, he says that consensus on a one-state 
solution was already in place in South Africa. Blacks and whites, he 
argued, "agreed that the state of South Africa must remain intact- 
the question was only who would rule it. Almost nobody proposed to 
partition the country between the Blacks and the Whites".

This is a fundamental misunderstanding.Territorial separation of 
blacks and whites was the central plank of official apartheid policy 
at least until 1985--that is, for almost four decades. Central to the 
policy was the claim that 87 percent of the country's land mass 
belonged only to whites and that blacks were allowed into it only 
under sufferance and without rights. In the late 1970s, for example, 
a senior Cabinet Minister told the South African Parliament that 
eventually "there will be no black South Africans". Part of this 
policy was the creation of phoney "black homelands" which were given 
sham "independence" to make the point that their "citizens" were no 
longer South African --just as Israel's "two state" policies promise 
a "homeland" for Palestinians today. The acknowledgment that South 
Africa should remain intact was a consequence of apartheid's defeat, 
not a feature of the system.

Second, Mr. Avnery argues that, while racial separation in South 
Africa was a white agenda universally rejected by blacks, in 
Israel-Palestine both peoples want separate states. "Our conflict is 
between two different nations with different national identities, 
each of which places the highest value on a national state of its 
own." He affirms that only a radical micro-minority on both sides 
wants a single state. On the Jewish side, he says, these radicals are 
the religious zealot settlers who insist on retaining all of the West 
Bank. On the Palestinian side, the rejectionists are "the Islamic 
fundamentalists [who] also believe that the whole country is a "waqf" 
(religious trust) and belongs to Allah, and therefore must not be partitioned."

These sweeping assessments of either case do not hold up. First, 
black South Africans were not so monolithic in their own views. The 
ANC supported unification and democracy but factions of South 
Africa's black population bought into the "homelands" concept. Best 
known for this was the Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu, but other 
groups also embraced the homeland policy for the power and patronage 
it allowed them--much as Fatah is embracing the truncated "state" 
offered by Israel today. Yes, the vast majority of black opinion 
rejected separate "homelands". But the small section of black society 
that felt it had something to gain from the "homelands" did not.

Palestinian views are not so monolithic, either. Polls conducted by 
the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre from 2000 through 2006 
have shown Palestinian support for a two-state solution (understood 
as an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) 
running at only around 50 percent. Adherence to the vision of one 
Palestinian state in all of Palestine has waffled between 8 and 18 
percent. But notably, support for a single "bi-national" state in all 
of Israel-Palestine has hovered stubbornly between 20 and 25 
percent--a strikingly high figure given that the one-state option is 
not under public debate among Palestinians. (The reason for this 
silence is not that unification is unpopular, but that its discussion 
would undermine the premise for the Palestinian Authority's "interim" 
existence and is therefore politically very sensitive.) If a quarter 
of Palestinians support a one-state solution even under these 
daunting conditions, it is not unreasonable to propose, as do veteran 
Palestinian activists like Ali Abunimah (author of the new book, One 
Country), that wider Palestinian support for unification would 
quickly manifest under more conducive ones.

It's also relevant that, in these same polls, Palestinian support for 
an Islamic state has run at about 3 percent. Clearly, 25-percent 
Palestinian support for a unified state can't be reduced, as Mr. 
Avnery suggests, to Islamic radicalism.

Third, Mr. Avnery points to the different demographics of the two 
conflicts. In South Africa, a 10-percent white minority ruled over a 
78-percent black majority (as well as "coloreds" and Indians), while 
in Israel-Palestine the Jewish and Palestinian populations are 
roughly equal, at about 5 million each. But this point leaves the 
argument hanging--so what? Any idea that it somehow makes the 
comparison inapplicable fails in two ways. First, it fails morally. 
Does oppression change qualitatively if the population distribution 
between the oppressor and oppressed vary? Would apartheid not have 
been apartheid if whites were half the population? Second, it fails 
in its political logic. Surely the black "threat" perceived by a 
10-percent white minority in South Africa was far greater than the 
Palestinian Arab "threat" now feared by a Jewish-Israeli population 
standing at roughly 50 percent. Not surprisingly, the fear of being 
"swamped" by a large black majority was frequently cited by 
apartheid's supporters as a rationale for continuing to deny black 
rights. Yet Israeli Jews are far better positioned to retain 
political and economic power in Israel than were whites (especially 
Afrikaners) in South Africa.

Finally, Mr. Avnery holds that unification in South Africa was driven 
by racial economic interdependency. "The SA economy was based on 
Black labor and could not possibly have existed without it". In its 
initial phases, apartheid did try to minimize any dependence on 
blacks, by trying to relegate blacks only to menial labour. Black 
Africans were not permitted to do work reserved for whites (or for 
Indians and "coloreds"). There was, for example, a strict ban on 
blacks working as artisans outside the segregated homelands. The 
system started unravelling in the late 1960s when the economy ran out 
of whites in some semi-skilled and skilled occupations and the 
government was forced to allow blacks in. That change gave black 
workers greater bargaining power and, with other factors, provided a 
base for more effective organised resistance. Whether the Israelis 
will be forced at some point to let Palestinians back into the labour 
market is hard to know. But even here the differences are not as 
stark as he claims.

In his conclusions, Mr. Avnery argues that the apartheid comparison 
also fails on the question of an international boycott. "It is a 
serious error," he insists, "to think that international public 
opinion will put an end to the occupation. This will come about when 
the Israeli public itself is convinced of the need to do so." This 
argument suggests that Mr. Avnerydoes not know enough the fall of 
apartheid, either. White South Africans did not change their minds 
about apartheid simply because the moral and political case was at 
last brought home to them by black street demonstrations and labour 
strikes. They did so when a strategic campaign of hard and bloody 
domestic struggle was supported by concerted international pressure, 
which included boycotts of South African products and the currency as 
well as artists and sports teams.

The economic effects of these sanctions against South Africa are 
still debated. But the psychological effect of international 
isolation on South African whites' willingness to change was immense 
and became one of the key levers which ended apartheid. As late as 
1992, when whites were asked to endorse a negotiated settlement in a 
referendum, media interviews with voters showed that whites' desire 
to "rejoin the international community" persuaded many who might have 
voted against a settlement to endorse it.

To attribute the "lack of bloodshed" in that transition to "wise 
leaders" like de Klerk and Nelson Mandela is to misunderstand how 
those historic figures were able to play their vital role precisely 
because of this far larger and historical collective effort. Just as 
it was impossible to imagine a negotiated end to apartheid without 
international isolation of South Africa, so it is hard to imagine 
that a political solution to the Palestinian conflict will be 
achieved unless substantial pressure is exerted on Israel by the world.

But an even deeper mistake underlies Mr. Avnery's pessimism about a 
one-state solution on the South African model: he seems to confuse 
the South Africa that everyone saw at the 1990 negotiations with the 
South Africa that existed before then. This all-too-common error 
holds that the factors which led to a settlement were immutable parts 
of the South African reality. In fact, political consensus about the 
need for national unity crystallized only after a long and bitter 
struggle, whose successful outcome had seemed just as implausible to 
most commentators as a shared society in Israel now seems to Mr 
Avnery. Forgetting this history indeed erases from it those 
courageous campaigners who fought for decades for the principle of 
national unity, sometimes at the cost of their lives. In fact, South 
Africans were never united in the view that the country had to be 
shared--many whites still reject the notion today. This is partly 
why, as late as the 1980s, much scholarship and "expert" commentary 
on South Africa continued to assume that the conflict was intractable 
and that a shared society was impossible, citing many of the same 
arguments that are repeatedly cited in the Palestinian case.

It clearly suits those who believe that partition is the only 
solution to act as though the world never changes. But it does--and 
did under apartheid. It will change also in Palestine.

Steven Friedman is a South African political analyst based in 
Johannesburg. Virginia Tilley is a US citizen now working as a senior 
researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria. 
Comments can reach them at her email address, 
<mailto:tilley at hws.edu>tilley at hws.edu.

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