Sunday, March 22, 2009

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

Tony Karon in The National

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.

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