Hope vs despair: Is it in Israel’s hands?

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“Apartheid in South Africa was a picnic compared to what we have seen in the occupied territories,” said Parliamentary Speaker Baleka Mbete at the ANC’s National General Council last weekend, which recommended discouraging travel to Israel unless in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.
by Geoff Sifrin | Oct 14, 2015


When 1994 Nobel Peace Laureate Shimon Peres visited South Africa in 2002 as Israel’s foreign minister, he said that in the 1970s when apartheid was at its height, he thought South Africa’s racial conflict was almost insoluble, and he believed Israel and the Palestinians would achieve peace long before South Africa.

But South Africa became a non-racial democracy in 1994, while Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East still continue with their convulsions of ethnic and religious violence. The killing fields in Israel’s neighbour Syria is the most ghastly current example, with Muslims slaughtering Muslims in their hundreds of thousands.

Peres was wrong, as he admitted. And Mbete is only half right, and needs to look urgently into the other half: apartheid South Africa as a whole was a picnic compared to what is going on in the Middle East. South Africa never had the religious and ethnic terrorism which has plagued that region for generations, with ISIS as the latest manifestation.

Is peace possible? Two approaches characterise the Israeli debate about the current terror attacks. The first says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to provide hope to the Palestinians, and when there is no hope, there will be violence. This view is held by political heavyweight Ami Ayalon, who was previously head of the Shin Bet, commander-in-chief of the Israeli Navy, and a recipient of Israel's highest decoration - the Medal of Valour.

Together with other prominent Israelis, he founded the political movement Blue White Future, aiming to advance a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“A thousand policemen and a thousand soldiers will not cover the burning and murderous fire in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the sizzling embers in the Gaza Strip,” he says.

“Speeches and futile Cabinet meetings won't change what is happening these very moments between us and hundreds and thousands of young Palestinians. We will have security when they will have hope. Their hope has been consistently fading for years. At the same time, our hope - for the fulfilment of the Zionist vision of a safe, democratic and thriving state for the Jewish people - is disappearing as well.”

Netanyahu disputes this, as he told the Knesset's winter session opening on Monday. He denied that the terrorism derives from Palestinian frustration. "Terrorism comes from the desire to annihilate us," he stated. “A hundred years of terrorism and a hundred years of attempts to destroy the Zionist enterprise, and our enemies haven't learned.”

Respected Israeli political analyst Ben-Dror Yemini agrees: “There is a delusional school of thought which claims that if we would only grant the Palestinians a political horizon and some hope, we wouldn't have this violence.”

He says history shows the opposite, that the most painful wave of terror occurred during the 1990s, the hopeful years of the Oslo accords: “There was a political horizon, there was a government striving for peace. It seemed that a solution was at hand. Did this bring quiet? We got non-stop terror.”

An even bigger wave of terror began with the second intifada, says Yemini, “precisely when Israel agreed for the first time not only to a Palestinian state but also to the division of Jerusalem. But instead of peace we got a festival of blood.”

“Today,” he says, “not one of the violent youngsters throwing stones, rioting, blowing themselves up, committing murder, is doing so in order to restart the political process… They belong to a camp that does not want an end to the occupation but rather an end to Israel.”

There is no easy answer to Israel’s search for peace, as the Middle East descends further into bedlam, and radical Islam rears its head everywhere.

Rather than calling for South Africans not to visit Israel because apartheid was a “picnic” compared to what’s going on there, the ANC should try and understand the debate about whether peace is actually possible, visit Israel, Palestine, and other places in the region, and talk to the cynics and the optimists on both sides.


Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity.




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