The accusation that Israel is an apartheid state has very little to do with the reality of Israel. It is an attempt by Israel’s critics to “South Africanise” the conflict through an analogy with apartheid South Africa. They want to make Israel a pariah, to generate an international campaign for the Palestinians as iconic as the anti-apartheid movement, the most successful solidarity campaign of the 20th century, and to justify the same tactics used to put pressure on the apartheid regime: boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Apartheid in South Africa involved racial categorisation, discrimination and segregation. South Africans were classified into four races: White, Black, Coloured or Indian. It was illegal for the races to mix sexually or marry. Whites – under 20 per cent of the population - controlled the political system and only whites were allowed to vote and sit in parliament until 1983 when separate chambers for Indians and Coloureds were created. The non-white population was brutally repressed. Place of residence was restricted according to race, with forced relocation of 3.5 million non-whites. Public services and leisure facilities from hospitals to beaches and park benches were segregated by race, with first world standards for whites and third world ones, or nothing, for blacks.
This is not analogous to the situation in Israel, as any visit to the country shows.
Within the Green Line, Israel is a multi-ethnic democracy. Arabs and other minorities are full citizens, have equal voting rights, and sit in the Knesset. There have been Arab cabinet ministers, generals, diplomats, Supreme Court judges, even an acting President from the Druze minority. Every citizen is guaranteed equal rights under the law. Universities and hospitals are integrated. The judiciary counters discrimination.
People from different communities mix in shops, restaurants, parks and on beaches. Israel’s Arab citizens hold collective rights as a national minority. Arabic is an official language. There is inequality between different ethnic groups in Israel, just as there sadly is in any Western country, but the Israeli government combats discrimination and is pursuing policies to close the economic gaps between majority and minority, open up the civil service, equalise welfare, and improve access to higher education.
Across the Green Line in the West Bank, an Occupation has persisted since the Six Day War not because Israel wants to rule over the territories but because peace talks – in which Israel seeks recognition and security guarantees in return for the creation of a Palestinian state – have failed thus far. The citizens of the occupied territory are treated differently to the citizens of the occupying power. If Israel chose to abandon the goal of a Two State Solution and permanently annex the West Bank it would face a choice between giving West Bank Palestinians Israeli citizenship, which might mean Israel ceasing to be a Jewish-majority state, or ruling undemocratically over the Palestinians, which would not be compatible with Israel’s nature as a democratic state and would give credence to the apartheid analogy.
But the Two State Solution remains the stated goal of Israel, and annexation is a fantasy of political extremists.
There is a big difference between warning that failure to move to Two States could result in an apartheid-style situation in the West Bank, and the pernicious smear that this is already the scenario, or that the concept of Israel as a Jewish State is inherently similar to apartheid.
The apartheid allegation poisons hopes for a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians by encouraging extremists, demoralising moderates, and fostering a destructive ‘boycott activism’ in the West.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is complex, sensitive and unique. Crude analogies with unrelated struggles in other parts of the world, designed to make it fit a simplistic “good vs bad” narrative, won’t help solve it and could make matters worse.
Luke Akehurst is Director of We Believe in Israel.