Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The one clear solution

A workable and just solution in Palestine is predicated on one principle, tested in South Africa: side with racism or be against, writes Azmi Bishara

The world looks different from the southern tip of Africa. There, in that country that liberated itself from a colonialist apartheid regime a decade ago, the people have embarked on a bold venture to build a nation. They have a sophisticated democratic constitution that officially recognises 11 languages within the framework of a multi- ethnic, multi-tribal, multi-religious civil polity founded on the concept of equal citizenship. This constitution embodies different aims and different priorities. It embodies a revolution that has transformed itself into a state, not only by means of the fight until victory but also by means of the arts of negotiation and compromise that made the transition possible.

Some believe that compromise went too far. They say that while the African National Congress (ANC) won the right to rule, it failed to win effective economic and political power. The descendants of the white settlers, indeed the very children of the old order, still control the nation's major companies and the bulk of the media. There are still gross disparities in land ownership and standards of living, and chronic poverty among non-whites. The government is still encumbered by debts from the former regime and it is obliged to abide by all international agreements to which that regime committed itself, including those it signed with Israel.

On the other hand, there is no denying that there is a growing African middle class and that the South Africa is gradually changing in many other ways -- and radically so.

In South Africa, the victims of apartheid had to suffice with the confessions and pleas for forgiveness offered by their oppressors before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But those who issued the orders that led to crimes against humanity and those who carried out these orders with excessive zeal did not escape punishment. Still, the commission was the result of a spirit of compromise. In fact, some attempted to take advantage of this spirit and stretch it as far as they could. They held that the violence perpetrated by the ANC resistance should be treated no differently to the violence perpetrated by members of the white regime and, therefore, that ANC officials responsible for actions that led to the death of civilians should be brought to justice. More recently, there was even debate over whether the names of white "victims" should be etched alongside the names of the actual martyrs of the resistance on the liberation monument that would be erected in a large park in Pretoria. Such arguments are clearly indicative of a bid on the part of the remnants of the former regime to exploit the nation's historic breakthrough to re- write history. Their intent is to promote the idea that there had existed some kind of parity between the oppressor and the oppressed and to recast the victims and victimisers as equally empowered parties. To me, nothing could be more guaranteed to keep wounds open and to court losing battles.

The ANC and the apartheid elite struck a comprehensive and long-range deal. But ultimately that deal was founded upon the recognition of the justice of the cause of equality and the rejection of racism. It did not equate the state of liberty with a state of slavery, or the act of oppression with the act of resistance. It did not produce a middle ground between two antithetical rights: the rights of the victim and the rights of the criminal. The deal arose from the momentous and final defeat of the apartheid system, the recognition that its inherent racism and oppression were incontrovertibly evil, and the admission that it was now time for that system to consign itself to history. The deal, moreover, went into the details of how these principles should be put into effect: the steps that were needed, the timeframes of implementation, the costs they would entail and how to bring the past to account. But there was no leniency with that past. Leniency was shown to the people who had served as the tools of the old order and even with some of the people who had been in charge, as long as they were not directly responsible for crimes against humanity. The deal accomplished its objective. It abolished apartheid rule in a way that spared the country massive bloodshed and years of strife. It made it possible for the old order to dissolve itself and for the leaders of that order to relinquish power without fear of revenge against their own persons and against whites in general. This was the spirit of tolerance and magnanimity at work, not some obfuscation between the oppressor and the oppressed or between an unjust regime and the justice of the cause of those who fought to overturn it.

Isn't it amazing that discussions of this sort could arise at a time when the Palestinians and their cause against the colonialist apartheid system in Palestine are in such a tragic plight? While the Palestinians are mired in turmoil and confusion, their friends in South Africa and elsewhere are in a quandary over whether to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians: Should they support Hamas or Fatah? Is it right to boycott Israel when the Palestinian leadership, itself, is busily normalising relations with the Israeli government? One can understand their predicament. However, they should bear in mind that in Palestine this "normalisation" is taking place before any deal has been struck and that whatever deals are in the works do not aim to alter the existing racist order.

That was not the case in South Africa. But this country, which has made the transition from revolution to civil statehood, has the legitimate concerns and obligations of a sovereign state. There, for example, the dictates of political realism propel towards solid relations between South Africa and the US, in spite of the objection of the former to America's belligerency in the Gulf and in spite of the fact that the latter only sided against apartheid at a time when it seemed wise to abandon a sinking ship. To cite another example, South Africa still maintains relations with Israel, in spite of the fact that Pretoria has not renewed any military treaties that had lapsed. In this regard, pro-Israel advocates have seized on the pragmatic spirit to advance a rationale that curiously echoes the arguments of negotiators for the former regime. Not that this should be surprising, since many of Israel's staunchest supporters were members of the former regime. In all events, they hold -- at best -- that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a "dispute" between two sides that have equal, if contending, rights to the same land. Accordingly, Pretoria must support the "peace process," encourage "moderates on both sides," and adopt an even- handed position.

I was recently present in such discussions in South Africa. The participants were current leaders, many of whom had been prominent freedom fighters. They ranged from the most ardent proponents of freedom and national liberation to the most ardent pragmatists. But even the staunchest advocates of realpolitik held that South Africa could not remain neutral on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; that it had to side against the occupation and with the Palestinian right to self- determination. Nevertheless, they added, the only alternative on offer is the peace process aiming at the two-state solution, so this is what South Africa had to deal with. Last week, a prominent ANC leader told me, "long ago we advised the Palestinians not to accept Oslo. As you know, we are not in favour of the ethnic-state solution to problems of this sort. But this was their choice. We, too, did not want anyone from African or other friendly nations to meddle in our affairs." On the other hand, a former resistance hero who is now a top ranking minister admitted, "Israel is an apartheid regime. This is not a foreign policy issue for a country such as South Africa, regardless of the geographical distance."

Of course, if South Africa did not regard the fight against racism as a major component of its contemporary identity, problems could arise among future generations that had never experienced apartheid, or realised that Israel had been that regime's staunchest and last remaining ally. More immediately, the so-called two-state solution that is on the table between the two "sides" is not intended to produce two actual states, but rather to entrench the existing Zionist/apartheid state that was founded at the expense of a dispossessed people and a Palestinian "Bantustan". South Africans know only too well what a Bantustan is. They were semi-autonomous political entities with puppet chieftains, intended to alleviate the apartheid regime's demographic burden.

The two-state solution is not so much the product of one side's reluctance to accept expressions
of solidarity as it is the product of the other side's refusal to permit it. It will not produce a truly sovereign Palestinian state. It is not in the nature of a historic deal that will help the Israelis dismantle the Zionist regime and assimilate into the region as Jews with a recognised identity and equal rights to others. Nor is a bi-national or multi-ethnic secular democratic state (unlike in South Africa, in Palestine national identity needs a voice) on offer as an alternative for the two-state solution that will not produce a real Palestinian state.

So what are friends of the Palestinian people supposed to do if they feel that racism and colonialism are universal moral questions and not foreign or domestic policy issues in this day and age? Here are Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the verge of producing some vague declaration of principles that will offer the Palestinians even less than what Barak proposed in Camp David II. There's a conference in the works that the Americans tentatively called a "meeting" (so as to spare the participants any embarrassment and so as to keep people from pinning too high expectations on what is essentially a PR gambit). But the contours of the outcome of that meeting have been clear for quite a while. They have been shaped by current balances of power. There will be no right of return for Palestinian refugees; East Jerusalem will not be the Palestinian capital; and there will be no dismantlement of all Israeli settlements and no return to pre-June 1967 borders. At the same time, the Zionist regime will remain fully intact and its inherent racism will become a domestic issue.

It seems that it is time to make a choice. Either people can go along with that settlement that
will take endless years to put into effect while Israel milks the opportunity to normalise relations with Arab governments, while anything that could be termed Palestinian unity is reduced to a vestige, while even water and air become issues to be haggled over across the negotiating table and while prisoners of conscience becomes a cause that supersedes the cause they were imprisoned for; or they can come up with an alternative solution, one that lets everyone know what it means to take a stance against the occupation and for national liberation within the framework of a democratic political agenda.

But what does taking such a stance entail? Perhaps it is useful to consider the following. The boycott of the South African apartheid regime proved one of the foremost weapons to bring about its fall. Obviously, it would be difficult to turn this tool against Israel. But it is equally obvious that it takes less than a boycott to frazzle Israel. Israel does not depend on normal relations like South Africa used to; it lives on privileges and prerogatives. The very thought of a boycott makes some Palestinian leaders involved in the business of premature normalisation uncomfortable. They are embarrassed by the decision taken by British university lecturers to boycott Israeli universities, as are those Palestinian institutes that have joint projects with Israeli universities. Obviously, some otherwise very democratically minded Israeli professors are also adverse to the boycott. Nor is their objection necessarily inspired by chauvinistic or even personal professional reasons. However, they do not see that to take a stance against the occupation entails more than a couple of hours in a weekend protest or engaging in discussion circles with Palestinian intellectuals. Taking a stance means being ready to pay a price for this stance. Racism and its expression in the last colonialist question of our times are not domestic policy issues. Although a unified Palestinian strategy would be of considerable importance, as guidance, democratic forces in the world should not have to wait until such a strategy emerges in order to act. Indeed, perhaps by acting they will galvanise the Palestinians into taking the necessary decisions.

The Palestinian people have been torn by the occupation and by the consequences of the occupation. They need a unified national liberation programme opposed to the artifice of the current Palestinian-Israeli negotiating scheme. But this alternative programme must tell the Palestinian people and the world what Hamas truly wants (merely to return to a power-sharing formula with Fatah, for example?) and what Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a large segment of Fatah want. These forces must assume this responsibility before it is too late, even to the extent of neutralising conflicting ideologies so as to produce a truly democratic national alternative and to emerge as a strong and cohesive political force. Is this not what leadership is all about?