For those of us who consider Israel to be an apartheid state, it is sobering to realize that things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better. In South Africa, racial segregation took a long time to gestate, before reaching its full potential in apartheid. The Israeli version is only now showing signs of approaching maturity, never mind reaching its inevitable demise.
The term “apartheid” emerged in 1947 as the slogan of the pro-segregationist National Party in South Africa while it was still in opposition. It represented a slew of policies aimed at tightening white control over the country, deepening segregation and “balkanizing the country into separate socio-economic units,” as Richard Steyn put it in his new biography of South African statesman Jan Smuts.
In other words, apartheid was the formalization of the segregation that had existed in the colonies that made up the Union of South Africa, as it was then, for well over two hundred years. It’s implementation, in the years following the Nationalist victory in the 1948 elections, provided the legal framework for the entrenchment of practices – of a social reality – that, to a large extent, already existed.
The whites of South Africa were no more or less racist after the introduction of apartheid than they were before. What had changed was that they felt sufficiently unencumbered by their previous colonial master, Britain, were more organized and they finally had a plan.
It’s worth remembering that less than 50 years before apartheid became state policy, the Afrikaners were fighting the British in the Boer War, which they regarded as a struggle for survival against the colonial, commercial and, in particular, mining interests – represented by Britain – which threatened to swamp them.
Apartheid, then, was the culmination of a long and hard struggle by the Afrikaners to overcome foreign rule, establish themselves on the land, build up their power and create a nation. The presence of a large black population throughout that process was a problem that necessitated increasingly discriminatory and harsh measures, but until the formation of the Nationalist government in 1948, no overall solution to the race problem was ever put forward.
Even Jan Smuts, an international statesman and the drafter of the preambles to the charters of both the League of Nations and United Nations, was at a loss when it came to solving what was called the “native problem.” For most of his career, he preferred to side-step the issue. It fell to the Nationalist government of 1948 to propose an overarching race policy – apartheid. And it took close to another 50 years for apartheid to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions and in the face of international obloquy.
In a very similar vein, Israel has failed to come up with a policy for its own “native problem.” It wants the land of the West Bank, but it has no idea of what to do with the population. Like Smuts, Benjamin Netanyahu’s only policy is to side-step the issue, his vague nods in the direction of a two-state solution notwithstanding.
In a technical sense, therefore, Israel is in a pre-apartheid phase. It has the functional segregation, the oppressive measures and an apathetic population that is largely disinterested in the fate of the other. It is apartheid-ready. What it lacks is the legal framework in which to implement its aspiration toward a state in which Jews control all the land and all the power.
That could soon be on the cards. Following the passing of the so-called Settlement Regularization Bill in early February, Knesset members from the coalition have now set their sights on annexing the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim to Israel. That is likely to be followed by further annexation, either on a piecemeal basis or of large swathes of the West Bank in one go.
The Regularization Bill, which retroactively legalized Jewish theft of private Palestinian land, was the first law passed by the Knesset that dealt with the fate of the Palestinians and their land. Until then, the displacement of the Palestinians had been accomplished by means of military decrees and Supreme Court dismissal of appeals by Palestinians or their Israeli representatives against the decrees.
To put it another way, the bill was the first occasion on which the Israeli legislature passed a law enabling discrimination by one segment of society against another. As such, it was an important milestone in the advance to fully-fledged apartheid.
Apart from David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu is Israel’s longest serving prime minister and he has fought numerous bruising diplomatic battles. He may not be the most appropriate person to lead Israel into the full bloom of apartheid. That distinction could well fall to Naftali Bennett, head of the avidly pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi party, who, unlike the prime minister, does have a proper apartheid plan. Until now, Bennett has anchored the right-wing of the ruling coalition and prevented any deviation from the coalition’s pro-settlement line on the part of Netanyahu.
Bennett’s plan would involve the extension of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, the herding of West Bank Palestinians into areas reminiscent of bantustans and the creation of two legal systems, one for Jews living anywhere in the greater territory and the other for West Bank Palestinians. It is a plan of which the South African architects of apartheid would have been proud.
To the best of my knowledge, Bennett’s plan doesn’t envisage discriminatory action against the Palestinians living within Israel proper, but that could be only a question of time. With apartheid fully in place in the West Bank, it’s unlikely that Israeli Jewish baasskap (domination) will tolerate unregulated Palestinians elsewhere. Their model could be the scrapping of the qualified black franchise in South Africa’s Cape Province by the apartheid regime.
If the experience of South Africa is anything to go by, therefore, apartheid is a slow-growing plant that needs ample time and water. In Bennett, Israel has the means, but will it have the time?