On Israel-Palestine and BDS | The Nation


On Israel-Palestine and BDS

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An Israeli flag is seen in front of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim on the outskirts of Jerusalem. (AP/Bernat Armangu)

Concern for the victims dictates that in assessing tactics, we should be scrupulous in recognizing what has succeeded or failed, and why. This has not always been the case (Michael Neumann discusses one of many examples of this failure in the Winter 2014 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies). The same concern dictates that we must be scrupulous about facts. Take the South African analogy, constantly cited in this context. It is a very dubious one. There’s a reason why BDS tactics were used for decades against South Africa while the current campaign against Israel is restricted to BD: in the former case, activism had created such overwhelming international opposition to apartheid that individual states and the UN had imposed sanctions decades before the 1980s, when BD tactics began to be used extensively in the United States. By then, Congress was legislating sanctions and overriding Reagan’s vetoes on the issue.

Years earlier—by 1960—global investors had already abandoned South Africa to such an extent that its financial reserves were halved; although there was some recovery, the handwriting was on the wall. In contrast, US investment is flowing into Israel. When Warren Buffett bought an Israeli tool-making firm for $2 billion last year, he described Israel as the most promising country for investors outside the United States itself.

While there is, finally, a growing domestic opposition in the United States to Israeli crimes, it does not remotely compare with the South African case. The necessary educational work has not been done. Spokespeople for the BDS movement may believe they have attained their “South African moment,” but that is far from accurate. And if tactics are to be effective, they must be based on a realistic assessment of actual circumstances.

Much the same is true of the invocation of apartheid. Within Israel, discrimination against non-Jews is severe; the land laws are just the most extreme example. But it is not South African–style apartheid. In the occupied territories, the situation is far worse than it was in South Africa, where the white nationalists needed the black population: it was the country’s workforce, and as grotesque as the bantustans were, the nationalist government devoted resources to sustaining and seeking international recognition for them. In sharp contrast, Israel wants to rid itself of the Palestinian burden. The road ahead is not toward South Africa, as commonly alleged, but toward something much worse.

Where that road leads is unfolding before our eyes. As Sternhell observes, Israel will continue its current policies. It will maintain a vicious siege of Gaza, separating it from the West Bank, as the United States and Israel have been doing ever since they accepted the Oslo Accords in 1993. Although Oslo declared Palestine to be “a single territorial unit,” in official Israeli parlance the West Bank and Gaza have become “two separate and different areas.” As usual, there are security pretexts, which collapse quickly upon examination.

In the West Bank, Israel will continue to take whatever it finds valuable—land, water, resources—dispersing the limited Palestinian population while integrating these acquisitions within a Greater Israel. This includes the vastly expanded “Jerusalem” that Israel annexed in violation of Security Council orders; everything on the Israeli side of the illegal separation wall; corridors to the east creating unviable Palestinian cantons; the Jordan Valley, where Palestinians are being systematically expelled and Jewish settlements established; and huge infrastructure projects linking all these acquisitions to Israel proper.

The road ahead leads not to South Africa, but rather to an increase in the proportion of Jews in the Greater Israel that is being constructed. This is the realistic alternative to a two-state settlement. There is no reason to expect Israel to accept a Palestinian population it does not want.

John Kerry was bitterly condemned when he repeated the lament—common inside Israel—that unless the Israelis accept some kind of two-state solution, their country will become an apartheid state, ruling over a territory with an oppressed Palestinian majority and facing the dreaded “demographic problem”: too many non-Jews in a Jewish state. The proper criticism is that this common belief is a mirage. As long as the United States supports Israel’s expansionist policies, there is no reason to expect them to cease. Tactics have to be designed accordingly.

However, there is one comparison to South Africa that is realistic—and significant. In 1958, South Africa’s foreign minister informed the US ambassador that it didn’t much matter if South Africa became a pariah state. The UN may harshly condemn South Africa, he said, but, as the ambassador put it, “what mattered perhaps more than all other votes put together was that of [the] U.S. in view of its predominant position of leadership in [the] Western world.” For forty years, ever since it chose expansion over security, Israel has made essentially the same judgment.

For South Africa, the calculation was fairly successful for a long time. In 1970, casting its first-ever veto of a Security Council resolution, the United States joined Britain to block action against the racist regime of Southern Rhodesia, a move that was repeated in 1973. Eventually, Washington became the UN veto champion by a wide margin, primarily in defense of Israeli crimes. But by the 1980s, South Africa’s strategy was losing its efficacy. In 1987, even Israel—perhaps the only country then violating the arms embargo against South Africa—agreed to “reduce its ties to avoid endangering relations with the U.S. Congress,” the director general of the Israeli foreign ministry reported. The concern was that Congress might punish Israel for its violation of recent US law. In private, Israeli officials assured their South African friends that the new sanctions would be mere “window dressing.” A few years later, South Africa’s last supporters in Washington joined the world consensus, and the apartheid regime soon collapsed.

In South Africa, a compromise was reached that was satisfactory to the country’s elites and to US business interests: apartheid was ended, but the socioeconomic regime remained. In effect, there would be some black faces in the limousines, but privilege and profit would not be much affected. In Palestine, there is no similar compromise in prospect.

Another decisive factor in South Africa was Cuba. As Piero Gleijeses has demonstrated in his masterful scholarly work, Cuban internationalism, which has no real analogue today, played a leading role in ending apartheid and in the liberation of black Africa generally. There was ample reason why Nelson Mandela visited Havana soon after his release from prison, declaring: “We come here with a sense of the great debt that is owed the people of Cuba. What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?”

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He was quite correct. Cuban forces drove the South African aggressors out of Angola; were a key factor in releasing Namibia from their brutal grip; and made it very clear to the apartheid regime that its dream of imposing its rule over South Africa and the region was turning into a nightmare. In Mandela’s words, Cuban forces “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor,” which he said “was the turning point for the liberation of our continent—and of my people—from the scourge of apartheid.”

Cuban “soft power” was no less effective, including 70,000 highly skilled aid workers and scholarships in Cuba for thousands of Africans. In radical contrast, Washington was not only the last holdout in protecting South Africa, but even continued afterward to support the murderous Angolan terrorist forces of Jonas Savimbi, “a monster whose lust for power had brought appalling misery to his people,” in the words of Marrack Goulding, the British ambassador to Angola—a verdict seconded by the CIA.

Palestinians can hope for no such savior. This is all the more reason why those who are sincerely dedicated to the Palestinian cause should avoid illusion and myth, and think carefully about the tactics they choose and the course they follow.


Read Next: Noam Chomsky writes that our government has always justified its worst abuses of power—here and abroad—on the basis of “national security.”

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