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It's Not Apartheid

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By Michael Kinsley
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

In the six decades since the founding of Israel, there have been about one and a half new ideas for solving the most intractable problem on the map of the world. In fact, ever since Britain's Balfour Declaration (1917) made incompatible promises to Jews and Arabs struggling over the same tiny plot of land, most would-be solutions have counted on an outbreak of goodwill among the Middle East's warring parties. This tradition continues in the Iraq Study Group report, which declared: "There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts" as a small warm-up for tackling the problem of Iraq.

What a good idea! And then we'll cure cancer, to pave the way for health care reform. Why, of course all of humanity should put down its weapons and learn to live together in harmony and siblinghood -- most especially in the Holy Land, birthplace of three great religions (so far). In fact it is downright inexplicable that peace and goodwill have not broken out spontaneously in the Middle East, even though this has never happened anywhere else either.

This is what special commissions are for, although this agreeably tough-sounding demand for comprehensiveness directly conflicts with the half of an idea mentioned above, which went by the name of "road map." It was only half an idea, let's call it a notion, because this notion still depended on something close to a change in human nature. But the road map made this seem more plausible. The notion was that abandoning the melodrama of a comprehensive settlement and settling for a series of smaller steps over many years might help the parties to develop mutual trust. Or at least this was a better bet than expecting each side to make a leap of faith into the arms of the other.

Meanwhile, the one full new idea in the Israel-Arab conflict came from Ariel Sharon, of all people. This oafish former general, who supervised the Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinians in Lebanon back in 1982, as prime minister more recently took up the philosophy in that Robert Frost poem: "Good fences make good neighbors." Rather than wait a few million years for evolution to purge Israelis and Arabs of their animosity, just keep them apart with a fence or a wall and related rules. Yes, of course, the walls and the rules favored Israel and were a far greater burden on Arabs than Israelis. But that is the kind of thing you can negotiate.

Comes now former president Jimmy Carter with a new best-selling book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." It's not clear what he means by using the loaded word "apartheid," since the book makes no attempt to explain it, but the only reasonable interpretation is that Carter is comparing Israel to the former white racist government of South Africa. That is a foolish and unfair comparison, unworthy of the man who won -- and deserved -- the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing Israel and Egypt together in the Camp David Accords, and who has lent such luster to the imaginary office of former president.

I mean, what's the parallel? Apartheid had a philosophical component and a practical one, both quite bizarre. Philosophically, it was committed to the notion of racial superiority. No doubt many Israelis have racist attitudes toward Arabs, but the official philosophy of the government is quite the opposite, and sincere efforts are made to, for example, instill humanitarian and egalitarian attitudes in children. That is not true, of course, in Arab countries, where hatred of Jews is a standard part of the curriculum.

The practical component of apartheid involved the creation of phony nations called "Bantustans." Black South Africans would be stripped of their citizenship and assigned to far-away Bantustans, where often they had never set foot. The goal was a racially pure white South Africa, though the contradiction with the need for black labor was never resolved. Here might be a parallel with Israel, which needs the labor of the Arabs it is trying to keep out.

But in other ways, the implied comparison is backward. To start with, no one has yet thought to accuse Israel of creating a phony country in finally acquiescing to the creation of a Palestinian state. Palestine is no Bantustan. Or if it is, it is the creation of Arabs, not Jews. Furthermore, Israel has always had Arab citizens. They are a bit on display, like black conservatives at a Republican convention. No doubt they suffer discrimination. Nevertheless, they are citizens with the right to vote and so on.

There used to be Jews living in Arab nations, but they also fled, in 1948 and subsequent years -- in numbers roughly equivalent to the Arabs who fled Israel. Now there are virtually no Jews in Arab countries -- even in a moderate Arab country such as Jordan. How many Jews do you think there will be in the new state of Palestine when its flag flies over a sovereign nation?

And the most tragic difference: Apartheid ended peacefully. This is largely thanks to Nelson Mandela, who turned out to be miraculously forgiving. If Israel is white South Africa and the Palestinians are supposed to be the blacks, where is their Mandela?

kinsleym@washpost.com


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