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