What Netanyahu Should Learn From the Fall of Apartheid

The South African example of a negotiated settlement of equals is a possibility that is still - just - within our grasp - but first, Prime Minister Netanyahu must accept that the occupation has no future.

Ilan Baruch
Ilan Baruch
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Ilan Baruch
Ilan Baruch

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared his – at least rhetorical - willingness to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas without preconditions, even if he must do so in a tent on the way from Jerusalem to Ramallah. Netanyahu even committed to confining himself in the tent until peace is concluded. United States Secretary of State John Kerry has focused his efforts in recent weeks to bringing the two to a negotiating ‘tent’ in Jordan but, so far, without success.

What is likely to bring the two leaders - from Ramallah and from Jerusalem - to this tent of meeting? Can we in the Middle East learn how to negotiate a settlement to a conflict that spans generations from South Africa’s experience during the twilight of apartheid? Can the examples of leadership embodied by Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk at that time and place offer us a way to break the ice separating the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships right now?

Former South African president Nelson Mandela is now in the twilight of his life. In May 1994, he was sworn in as president of South Africa, after an election campaign that brought the entire country's citizenry to the polls. The African National Congress, which Mandela led, won a large majority – a majority that already would have been his decades before, had elections been based on universal suffrage and not the discriminatory policies of the apartheid government. The journey to this election victory was a long one.

The most critical juncture in the dismantling of apartheid came when South Africa’s white government internalized that apartheid had no future. Pretoria itself initiated secret contacts with the ANC leadership. Their messengers, meeting with the leadership of the struggle against apartheid, did not try to save apartheid. They came with a vision to bring apartheid to an end in a manner that would ensure the safety and well-being of the white population in South Africa, the people on whose behalf the regime had existed for 46 years.

This, then, is the first imperative which paves the way to the negotiations tent: The recognition that the occupation, like apartheid, is a political, diplomatic and national security experience without a future.

The settlement enterprise that is intended to perpetuate the occupation is both immoral and impractical. There is no chance that Israel will perpetuate its control over the Palestinian people in its current format without also risking its own security. Israel does not and will not have the physical, human and defense resources to rule 2.5 million people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem against their will, and to hold under siege another one and a half million people in the Gaza Strip. There is no future to national self-determination built upon the negation of another people's national self-determination, upon the regular humiliation of that people and the plundering of their land, water and resources. Under South Africa's apartheid government, the rights and dignity of blacks were also negated by law, the law of the whites alone, and backed by the force of the whites' security and law enforcement forces acting solely on their behalf.

Thus Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a historic obligation to lead, in the image of de Klerk. He must send envoys to relay a message wonderful in its simplicity: We seek to bring the occupation to an end on the basis of the 1967 borders, with modifications. Let's conduct negotiations regarding the conditions and timetables that will enable the end of the occupation without harming the safety and wellbeing of Israeli citizens on both sides of the Green Line.

The second imperative that can be learned from South Africa's example is that both sides must build a model for working together that will shore up their ability to maintain broad public support for a political process that will no doubt be full of painful concessions for both sides. Netanyahu's people must learn in detail the constraints faced by Abbas, not with the tools of the intelligence services, but with diplomatic tools – and this requires listening and trust-building. Both sides must sit in the tent as equals, not as superiors and inferiors. As an opening act to build this trust, Netanyahu could think in terms of the freeing of Palestinian security prisoners in Israel, just as Mandela's own release from prison set the tone of future negotiations. At the same time, Abbas' people should be expected to listen in good faith to the constraints faced by the Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The third imperative is that both sides must implement steps that will reduce the possibility of violence erupting during the negotiations. This would require restarting the internal Palestinian reconciliation process. Hamas must be able to take part of the responsibility for negotiations. Amid the lack of attentiveness on the part of the Egyptians and the Qataris – as Cairo and Doha are both focused on internal or other regional matters – this would require an Israeli and American revision regarding direct contacts with Hamas. Hamas must tightly enforce ceasefire from the Gaza Strip, while, at the same time, Israel must strictly enforce the law with respect to violent groups among the settler population in the West Bank.

Based upon the South African example, these three imperatives can facilitate both sides’ entry into the tent. Without them, the Palestinians will be forced to undertake diplomatic steps in the international arena – undermining, at first, the international legitimacy of the Israeli occupation, while triggering a dynamic which is likely to corrode the foundations of Israel's legitimacy itself.

Unlike the South African case, Palestine might find a base for its legitimacy in the United Nations and in the eyes of the international community rather than in a negotiated peace deal with Israel. That result would be an adverse step towards a zero-sum game played to Israel’s detriment, far from the South African example of a negotiated settlement of equals, a possibility that is still – just - within our grasp.

Amb. (ret.) Ilan Baruch is a former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa and peace negotiator, and is now a peace activist.

Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie, walk hand-in hand-with their raised clenched fists upon Mandela's release from Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town South Africa, Feb. 11, 1990.Credit: AP

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