Now that I’ve written two posts comparing party politics in Israel with those in South Africa, I should clue everyone in that I know there are big differences between the two countries. Beyond the fact that whites (unlike Jews in Israel) are everywhere a minority in South Africa, they also arrived in South Africa with no previous historical claim to the land. But at least the Afrikaners—and many of the English-speakers as well—have, like the Israelis, developed a culture that is very different from that of their country(ies) of origin. It was in South Africa that the Afrikaners and the mixed-race “coloreds” developed Afrikaans as a language distinct from Dutch, just as the Israelis developed modern Hebrew.
The Afrikaners really had no country to return to—not the Netherlands, Germany or Belgium—and so most of those few who have left South Africa have gone elsewhere. It would be equally difficult for most Israeli Jews to return to their countries of origin in either Europe or North Africa or the Middle East.
Most of the legitimate (i.e., non-antisemitic) critics of Israel who talk about apartheid are referring to Israeli rule and settlement of the West Bank, not to Israel within its pre-June ’67 borders. The West Bank is more comparable to Namibia, the former South West Africa (SWA), than it is to South Africa. SWA was a German colony that was conquered by South Africa in 1915, during World War I. It is thus somewhat akin to the Israeli conquest of the West Bank in 1967.
In the late 1960s the International Court of Justice and the UN revoked South Africa’s mandate over SWA because South Africa had applied apartheid to the territory, even though under the terms of the class C mandate it was entitled to administer the territory as if it were part of its own territory. For the next two decades the rest of Africa and the Third World demanded an end to the South African occupation of Namibia.
In 1981 the Reagan administration initiated the policy of “constructive engagement” toward South Africa. What this meant in practice was putting an end to the occupation of Namibia by taking account of South African security needs, and only secondarily dealing with the internal politics of South Africa. This is much like the Western approach toward Israel and the Palestinian territories. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Croker took the lead in negotiating a timetable for Cuban withdrawal from Angola in parallel with a South African withdrawal from Namibia. It took him until December 1988 to negotiate the double withdrawal. The timing was mainly influenced by the fighting on the ground in Angola between the Cubans and the South Africans. An illusory “victory” by Cuba in the battle of Cuito Cuinavale, in the summer of 1988, allowed Fidel Castro to withdraw his forces without losing face. During this time, the sanctions campaign against South Africa broke out.
Croker has written of South Africa as a “free moral lunch” for both the Left and the Right in the U.S. The Right could attack the administration for betraying a strategic ally and not supporting it against the Communist enemy. The Left could attack the policy as racist. Sounds vaguely familiar doesn’t it? Croker was interested it doing what he thought the U.S. was capable of doing in improving its political standing in Africa by facilitating an end to the last colonial presence in Africa. Obama is essentially trying to do the same thing—or at least preserve the chance for someone else to do it in the future.
In September 1985, the administration passed a set of largely symbolic economic sanctions against Pretoria. These included the denial of landing rights for South African Airlines in the U.S., an end to the importation of Krugerrand gold coins, etc. A year later, Congress voted for stricter sanctions by a wide enough margin to override a presidential veto. Western Europe instituted a set of sanctions roughly comparable to the 1985 sanctions. Four years later Pretoria released Mandela from prison, unbanned the ANC and PAC liberation movements, and began to negotiate with black organizations for a future democratic solution. So all this came about because of sanctions and divestment, right?
Divestment actually did nothing to weaken apartheid—it merely changed the ownership of stock of companies invested in South Africa. A few Western companies withdrew by selling off their holdings to South African buyers at bargain prices. American and European economic sanctions only affected about two to three percent of South African trade and were easy to get around by sending goods on to Swaziland or Lesotho to sew in “made in ____ labels” to disguise their real origin.
What affected Pretoria severely was the refusal of European banks to rollover short-term loans when internal unrest made South Africa a bad credit risk. For purely financial reasons, banks caused Pretoria to default on its loans and receive a bad credit rating. It now had bad credit and problems receiving new capital needed to finance economic growth to deal with its growing black population. This is what caused F.W. de Klerk to begin negotiating with Mandela and the ANC in 1992. This is what led to majority rule.
European countries are now in the boycott stage of economic opposition to Israel—about where they were in 1985 in regard to South Africa. This might eventually lead to limited trade sanctions against Jerusalem. But it will be the attitude of private banks and the American government in Washington that will decide the future. Pretoria was also easier to pressure, because it had a single dominant party system with the National Party system making all the decisions. Israel has a very unstable coalition system that makes controversial decisions difficult to make.
Obama’s attitude towards Israel seems to be that of the Reagan administration towards Pretoria. And that is how it should be. Obama may force a freeze on new settlement construction but he will not mediate an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank anytime soon because the Palestinians appear unable or unwilling to meet Israel’s security needs. Once that changes, expect more pressure. But don’t expect instant sanctions leading to instant peace. It ain’t going to happen.