Kerry during a Congressional hearing.
John Kerry during a Congressional hearing, Match 12, 2014. Photo by AFP
Text size

In a strictly literal sense, the creator of Israel’s policy of apartheid – “separate-hood” in Dutch/Afrikaans - was Yitzhak Rabin. In January 1995, following a roadside suicide bombing near Netanya that killed 19 soldiers, Rabin announced that Israel would henceforth try to “separate” itself from the Palestinians. In his last interview before he was assassinated, Rabin reiterated that such “separate-hood” was the “best solution” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Israel, in fact, it is the leftist and centrist supporters of a two-state solution who are the biggest supporters of “separation," a position that often earns them heaps of disingenuous scorn and ridicule from their critics on the hard right and the extreme left. What kind of hypocritical liberals are you, if you support separation from the Palestinians, while we, the annexationists on the right and the one-staters on the left, endorse integration?

It is but one in a long list of fundamental contrasts, contradictions and anomalies that should distinguish Israel’s singular conflict with the Palestinians from the white-supremacist apartheid policies practiced by South African governments until the early 1990s. But no matter how many degrees of separation divide the two situations, the term “apartheid” remains a highly toxic label for Israel, one which it fears the most; when it is used by such an august statesman as Secretary of State John Kerry, it sends, or should send, alarm bells ringing.

Kerry’s warning, as reported by the Daily Beast, referred of course to the future. Without a two-state solution, Israel will inevitably find itself facing a choice between granting voting rights to West Bank Palestinians, and thus threatening the long-term survival of its Jewish character, or denying such a vote and descending into a form of apartheid. It is a scenario that is routinely conjured by Israeli politicians, including both former prime ministers Barak and Olmert, but one that resonates more when it comes from Kerry’s mouth.

The term “apartheid” goes hand in hand with delegitimization, the implication of Kerry’s warning being that without a two-state solution, Israel will ultimately lose its legitimacy even in the eyes of its best friends. The term “apartheid” also goes hand in hand with an international boycott campaign aimed at toppling its instigating regime, as was the case in South Africa: the insinuation of Kerry’s warning, much to the delight of BDS supporters, is that even Washington would ultimately be forced to play ball.

Radical critics of Israel maintain that there is no need to wait for the future: apartheid is already here. Such a claim can only be ascribed to ignorance, malicious or otherwise - either about the current situation in Israel or that which prevailed in the past in South Africa – at least where Israeli Arabs are concerned. Palestinians who are Israeli citizens may be subjected to some institutional discrimination and are often the object of the private prejudices of the Jewish majority, but their situation isn’t even in the same universe as blacks under what was the systematic and inhumane subjugation and segregation practiced by white South Africa.

The predicament of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is more complex, and harder to explain. Israeli restrictions on the civilian Palestinian population are light years away from the brutal and tyrannical apartheid regime and are in no way grounded on theories of “scientific” racial supremacy, as they were in South Africa. But even if one accepts the Israeli-held belief that security needs dictate its policies, there is no escaping the fact that for close to half a century, the disenfranchised Palestinians have been denied basic freedoms and human rights that are taken for granted in much of the Western world.

Israeli protestations notwithstanding, the West Bank and Gaza can be compared legitimately – if not altogether accurately - to places such as Bophuthatswana, Venda, and Ciskei, the South African Bantustans with which Israel, sadly, was the only country in the world to maintain formal ties in the early 1980s. Ariel, “the capital of the Shomron” actually signed a twin city agreement with Bhisho, the capital of Ciskei.

Indeed, Israel’s prolonged support for the apartheid regimes of white South Africa is one of the main adhesives that help the comparison between the two to stick. Contrary to latter-day revisionism, Israel’s deep links with the apartheid regime were not only a product of its international isolation following the 1973 war, but also of a basic identification of many in both Labor and Likud governments with South Africa’s self-portrayal as a bastion of Western civilization withstanding communist, anti-Zionist and Third World hordes, including the African National Congress.

Whatever the other pros and cons of the apartheid allegations about Israel, they provide biblical proof, at the very least, that what goes around comes around, or as Hosea puts it, “they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind." 

And while official Israeli policy may still be guided by the rule of law and some inherent sense of decency, one also cannot deny the ascendance in recent years of chauvinistic and even racist attitudes toward “the other” – including Palestinians and blacks – among increasingly powerful ultra-right wing and religious elements. They may shun the word apartheid, but its essence resides in their hearts.

Kerry is likely to come under heavy criticism for his statements from both Israel and its Jewish supporters. And even though it may indeed have been inappropriate for an American Secretary of State to publicly drop the A-bomb in a wide forum – even one ostensibly closed to the press – the denunciation of Kerry won’t make the problem go away. Rightly or wrongly – in fact both – the apartheid label hangs over Israel’s head like Damocles sword, a threat that grows with every day that the occupation perseveres.