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Follow South Africa's Lead
Last uploaded : Wednesday 2nd Jul 2003 at 23:40
Contributed by : Shira Herzog


24 June 2003

Israelis often react dismissively when their conflict with Palestinians is compared with the South African story. On the face of it, they're right. Israel isn't governing the West Bank and Gaza through an apartheid system, and its negotiations with the Palestinians are aimed at separating into two states rather than sharing power in one. The real differences between the two situations, however, lie in several key ingredients that facilitated success in South Africa and are missing in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

This week, former South African prime minister F. W. de Klerk is in Israel to address a conference on conflict resolution. As painstaking efforts to achieve an initial Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire are underway, it's worth considering what the relevant lessons of South Africa might be.

The first lesson is openness. A critical element in South Africa's transition process was the transparency of negotiations between the governing National Party and the African National Congress. White and black leaders realized that involving their own people was essential for negotiations to succeed. Even before the formal negotiating process, an extensive bottom-up process engaged broad sectors of the population and complemented the talks at the top-down leadership level.

Ultimately, the combination of determined leaders and informed constituencies made it possible to overcome the inevitable setbacks, and the result was impressive. Although 10,000 South Africans were killed between 1991-94, the negotiating process continued.

The critical role of public engagement has been overlooked all along in the Israeli-Palestinian equation. As early as the 1993 Oslo Accord, negotiators on both sides failed to appreciate the importance of legitimizing a deal within their own constituencies and didn't believe in transparency or inclusiveness. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority paid lip service at best to their commitment in the accord to encourage civil-society peace building. While formal peace talks continued, Palestinian media preached violence, and Israel restricted Palestinians' movements and expanded settlements. Israeli and Palestinian non-governmental organizations that were committed to dialogue achieved some success in spite of the indifference or hostility of their respective governments.

South Africa offers a more pointed lesson for Israelis and Palestinians. Roelf Meyer, chief National Party negotiator, has written eloquently of the "personal paradigm shift" that paved the way for his successful negotiations with the ANC.

Mr. de Klerk's original goal was to make sufficient adjustments to the country's apartheid system to stabilize the country but without sacrificing continued special status for the white minority. According to Mr. Meyer, the real breakthrough in negotiations occurred only in 1992, when the South African leader understood that this old paradigm had to go. Once Mr. de Klerk realized that the Afrikaner minority's rights could best be protected in a democracy, even with majority black rule, his interests and those of the ANC converged in a new, common vision. (Both Mr. de Klerk and then ANC leader Nelson Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their roles in ending apartheid and introducing representative democracy.)

Israelis and Palestinians still cling to an old, win-lose paradigm, in which one side's gains are seen as the other's losses. As long as Israelis don't accept Palestinians as equal partners in a new, win-win paradigm based on a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, negotiations will be undermined by suspicion and manipulation. Like Mr. de Klerk in 1990, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon knows that in the face of new international realities and demographic pressures, the greater risk is to take no risk.

Therefore, he acknowledges the need to change an intolerable status quo. But a negotiating strategy that discounts Palestinian needs and interests is likely to yield only limited success.

Palestinians have an additional challenge. In South Africa, the ANC's leadership recognized early on how essential it was to reassure white South Africans of their future position in a democratic South Africa. The ANC built legitimacy for the deal within its own ranks while actively calming the fears of Afrikaners about the workability and fairness of the new system. Most importantly, the ANC dealt decisively with violence and incitement, and assumed responsibility for its community's statements and actions.

The Palestinian Authority hasn't measured up to the ANC's test of leadership.

Under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, it failed to legitimize the two-state approach among Palestinians. Mr. Arafat never told his people what they would have to give up for the sake of a deal, nor did he relinquish the option of violence. His equivocating rhetoric and tolerance for the terrorism of extremist factions convinced Israelis that he was unreliable and dishonest. Now, although Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas appears to have a clear vision for the future, he can no longer guarantee his community's co-operation. Because Mr. Abbas lacks legitimacy in the Palestinian street, he is unable to reassure Israelis that he can be a credible, committed partner.

While the conditions that helped South Africans in their transition are clearly missing in the Middle East, Mr. de Klerk can give Israelis and Palestinians one clear message: The two people are inextricably intertwined in this deep-rooted conflict. They can either continue to exacerbate their mutually destructive tendencies or identify a common vision and set out to surmount fear and mistrust.

Shira Herzog is executive vice-president of the Calgary-based Kahanoff Foundation and a writer on Israeli affairs. She splits her time between Toronto and Tel Aviv.
Originally published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto.
JewishComment is grateful to Common Ground News Service for arranging copyright clearance.
Distributed by Common Ground News Service




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