Josh Glancy

What looks like ‘apartheid’ keeps Israel secure

Comparisons with the old South Africa ignore attempts to totally destroy the Jewish state

June 17, 2021 10:29

To apartheid or not to apartheid? That’s been the question in Middle Eastern discourse over the past few weeks. Everywhere you look, ever since the recent war in Gaza, the “A” word is being deployed to describe the Israel-Palestine situation.

Israel can be classed as an “apartheid-like state” was the recent view of Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa. Israel is an “apartheid state” was the opinion of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the leading Democratic progressive in Congress. Then there was Human Rights Watch, which in April published a paper detailing all the ways in which Israel is indeed an apartheid state. All the usual suspects, I imagine some readers are thinking. A collection of posturing leftist voices that refuse to acknowledge the realities of what Israel faces, preferring to gain progressive plaudits for inveighing against the Jewish state.

Well, perhaps. But let’s take this allegation seriously for a moment. Because what has shocked me in recent weeks has not been the allegation of apartheid from familiar quarters, but the private anxiety I’ve heard from liberal Jewish friends on this subject. Can we still really reject this label, they fret. Ignore the Arab-Jewish situation in Israel itself for a moment, which is contested and fractious and far from ideal, but not in any meaningful way an apartheid. Look at the West Bank instead, where some three million Palestinians currently live. They don’t have sovereignty or a state. Israel controls their borders and has military power over their land. Against their will, the Jewish settler population in their territory has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Checkpoints and economic constraints dominate their lives. In the Netanyahu era, this situation drifted and drifted. The peace process is defunct and there is no visible attempt from Israel to resolve this situation. Quite the opposite, in fact, one might argue.

Why then is this not apartheid? Human Rights Watch defines apartheid as a “crime committed when officials systematically oppress one group in the territory under their control, and subject it to inhumane acts, with the intent to maintain the domination over that group for the benefit of another group”. The key plank in the HRW argument on apartheid revolves around intent. Fifteen years ago, when Ehud Olmert’s Israel was offering the Palestinians the basis for a state, it was difficult to argue that Israel intended to permanently rule over the occupied territories. Now, after the Bibi era, it is difficult to argue it doesn’t. What’s the plan here? When does this end? It’s a valid concern. And yet the apartheid label has always obscured more than it reveals.

The purpose of this historical switcheroo has always been to delegitimise Israel, to empower the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, make Israel an international pariah and construct a global coalition against it, forcing this rogue state to cave much as FW de Klerk’s South Africa did in the 1990s. It seeks to paint Israel as an entirely white, settler colonial state.

But does the claim itself have any merit? The key problem with the use of apartheid in my view is that it rides roughshod over the demands of Israeli security. It ignores the fact that from the moment the state of Israel was established to today, Palestinian political movements and their allies have actively sought to destroy it.

Merely using the phrase “Israeli security” will get you laughed at in many liberal circles. It’s a front, an excuse, a smokescreen placed in front of a domineering and greedy imperial project. But Israeli security is no joke. It’s a necessity. This is a state that was established in the aftermath of the Holocaust, that has faced multiple, multinational attempts to wipe it off the map.

Of course, security can be used as an excuse for depredation. And on many occasions it has been. But anyone who truly believes that security has nothing to do with Israel’s ongoing occupation doesn’t care at all about Israeli safety. Or about Israeli lives. This is where the apartheid label becomes historically illiterate. White South Africa faced nothing comparable to the genocidal threats that haunt Israel. The current situation is not based exclusively on race, not when the majority of Israeli Jews are Mizrahi and Arabs serve in its ruling coalition. And the initial intention was not to establish permanent occupation, or why would Israel have repeatedly offered the Palestinians a state? If you’ll excuse another much-despised cliche, it is the actions of both sides that have led us to this impasse. Israel’s sins in this story are legion, but they didn’t occur in isolation and they don’t amount to apartheid.

Yet still that word lingers: “intent”. As cynical and weary as Israel has become on this issue, it must not let go of its intention to find a solution. It must keep trying for a settlement. It mustn’t lose hope. Or else the apartheid argument will only gain power over time.

June 17, 2021 10:29

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