Comparing Likud to South Africa’s National Party

Comparing Likud to South Africa’s National Party

At first, I objected when our friend, Thomas Mitchell, sent in this historical comparison between Likud and the politics of South Africa’s Afrikaner National Party, both defining the mainstream right of their respective national political cultures. But he is specifically not trying to feed into the “Israel is an apartheid state” argumentation of the extreme left: “I think that you are better off defusing it with precise comparisons rather than leaving it as the 800 lb. guerrilla in the room,” he said.

So, without further ado, here is this “precise comparison” by Dr. Thomas Mitchell:

Is Bibi ‘n verlig ou ‘n verkramp?

In the late 1970s, the Afrikaner journalist Willem de Klerk, older brother of future state president F.W. de Klerk, coined the term verlig (plural verligte), literally “enlightened,” for more pragmatic Afrikaner politicians and intellectuals within the National Party camp and the term verkramp (plural verkrampte) literally “narrow-minded” or “cramped” for the conservatives. The National Party was then going through a slow evolution that would result in the overthrow of President P.W. Botha as party leader a decade later and his replacement by De Klerk’s older brother Frederick Willem. The verligte believed in eliminating petty apartheid, maybe even eliminating grand apartheid—the homelands, and possibly doing a deal in Namibia. But they did not get their chance until P.W. Botha’s overthrow. Botha himself looked like a verlig when he brought in a new constitution with separate chambers in parliament for mixed-race “coloreds” and Indians, although whites still maintained overall control by determining which matters would be relegated to those chambers and which would be decided collectively where the whites had a majority.

The Israeli Revisionist right has been undergoing a similar evolution since the mid-2000s, when Ariel Sharon began to realize that the dream of greater Israel was not feasible as a reality. Instead of “Jordan is Palestine,” Sharon began to speak of ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state, albeit only on about 42 percent of the territory of the West Bank—something that no Palestinian leader could agree to. At that time Benyamin Netanyahu decided to position himself to the right of Sharon, when he had previously been on Sharon’s left. The Likud rejected Sharon’s plan for a disengagement from Gaza, so in the end Sharon left the party he had midwifed 32 years before and created a new party, the third in his long political career. When Sharon founded Kadima, only months before his incapacitating stroke, he left the Likud with all the true-believer ideologues and career hacks and took the pragmatists and opportunists with him.

When Bibi speaks of a demilitarized Palestinian state now, we have to ask: Has he changed back again? Like Churchill who quit the Tories for the Liberals and then returned a decade later, has Bibi returned to the camp of the pragmatists? In the old South Africa with its two-party system, the verligte and the verkrampte were creatures not only restricted to Afrikaner politics but to internal National Party politics as well. No one ever accused liberal opposition leader Frederick van Zyl Slabbert of being a verlig. No, he was a real liberal. Willem de Klerk’s terms were reserved for differentiating the various shades of Afrikaner opinion in the only party likely to ever hold power for the next twenty or thirty years. With the collapse of the Labor Party some Israeli political journalist may have to invent Hebrew terms for the different shades of opinion within the Likud.

The Israeli verligte at present reside within Kadima and believe in negotiations with Fatah for a real Palestinian state. Their leader is Tzipi Livni, who is more of a real liberal than Labor leader Ehud Barak at present. The South African equivalent was Wynand Malan and Dennis Worrall who left the National Party in late 1986 to run as independents in the 1987 election along with an Afrikaner businesswoman. Malan, an incumbent MP, was the only one of the three to be elected. The two formed their own separate political parties and Malan was joined by defectors from the liberal Progressive Federal Party. Two years later the two parties (re)united with the PFP to form the Democratic Party, which won a record number of seats for a liberal party in South Africa in the election. This was the political background to F.W. de Klerk’s decision to legalize the ANC and PAC liberation movements and the Communist Party and release their leaders from prison.

It may be that Bibi is really like P.W. Botha, trapped between the verligte and the verkrampte and shunned by the outside world. If Bibi tries to maneuver between the Uzi Landaus, the Benni Begins, and the Avigdor Liebermans on one hand and the Tzipi Livnis on the other, he might end up like Botha. Netanyahu had already suffered from a party coup once already. Maybe Obama can save Bibi in the same way that American and European sanctions saved De Klerk. But, then again, De Klerk had a real negotiating partner in the ANC — Nelson Mandela. Because of domestic political constraints, neither Olmert nor Abbas were free to negotiate so constructively.

By | 2009-07-06T14:35:00-04:00 July 6th, 2009|Blog|4 Comments


  1. David Ehrens July 6, 2009 at 4:06 pm - Reply

    Ralph has forwarded a very interesting article, but one point in his introduction bothered me. He refers to those (like former President Carter) who see some great similarities between Israel’s current manifestation of Zionism and South African Apartheid as voices from the “extreme left.” I don’t think anyone would accuse Carter of being a Bolshevik and, while the analogy with Apartheid does not fit completely, there are all too many similarities for it to be dismissed out of hand.

  2. Ralph Seliger July 6, 2009 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    I did not refer to Jimmy Carter in my brief intro, at all. I agree with you that Carter is not a voice of the “extreme left.” But there are such voices.

    You also should understand that Carter DOES NOT regard Israel as an apartheid state. His book raised the danger that Israel could become an apartheid state if the problem of the Palestinian territories is not reasonably resolved. Carter also sensibly (albeit awkwardly) pointed out that aspects of Israel’s presence in the occupied West Bank resemble apartheid.

  3. David Ehrens July 6, 2009 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    Ralph, you are correct that Carter did not say that Israel was an apartheid state, but he makes the case that the West Bank and Gaza are. This Ha’aretz article on a talk he gave at GWU in 2007 shows the distinction he was trying to make: However, because Israel itself does not seem to make a distinction between what is “theirs” and what belongs to the Palestinians, I’m not sure Carter’s distinction really makes much difference in appropriately categorizing the form of Zionism Israel is practicing as Apartheid.

  4. Anonymous February 15, 2010 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    very useful post. I would love to follow you on twitter.

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