Nov. 11, 2002
EDITORIAL: An apartheid state?

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According to Danny Gillerman, what peace between Israel and the Palestinians requires are "leaders like [F.W.] de Klerk and [Nelson] Mandela." Israel, he says, has had three such leaders: Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak. And Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "may also be the next de Klerk."

As for the Palestinians, they "have not succeeded in producing a leader like Mandela." Yasser Arafat, he says, "betrayed and deceived his own people."

Unexceptional boilerplate, save in four respects. First, Gillerman is the Israel's next ambassador to the UN. Second, it is odd that a diplomat should stand in critical judgment of his prime minister. Third, it is a slap in the face to the new foreign minister, who alone among Israel's recent prime ministers apparently falls short of Gillerman's de Klerk analogy. Fourth, the comparison to apartheid South Africa, however implicit, is specious and damaging to the country's interests abroad.

The comparison between Israel and South Africa is, of course, nothing new. "Israel and the old South Africa," wrote columnist Liz McGregor in The Guardian, "illustrate the dangers of the state based on ethnicity, where there is the notion of a particular ethnic group which prospers at the expense of the perceived lesser races." Former minister Shulamit Aloni of Meretz noted recently that "if we are not an apartheid state, we are getting much, much closer to it." And Amnesty International, in its Durban declaration from last year, called on the international community "to impose a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state."

These remarks, plainly, are attacks on Israel, two from sources identifiably anti-Israel in their outlook. Gillerman's is a different case. The former head of the Chambers of Commerce was trying to defend Israel, not attack it. To say that the Palestinians need a Mandela a former terrorist and national leader capable of extending a sincere hand of friendship to his enemies is one of those cliches that bears repeating. And to point out that Arafat has fallen short of the mark is beyond cavil.

Yet there is danger in facile analogies. If Arafat is to be a Mandela, then he must be operating in a context similar to apartheid South Africa. Is this the case? Legions of Israel's enemies, especially in the Arab states, would have it so. But that ignores the fact that Israeli Arabs, unlike apartheid-era blacks, participate actively in political life; that Palestinians spurned the offer of a state because it failed to meet their maximalist demands; and that Palestinian groups such as Hamas wage war against Israeli civilians with the express purpose of destroying the Jewish state.

The mention of de Klerk only compounds Gillerman's error. If Rabin, Peres, and Barak were all de Klerks, were Binyamin Netanyahu, Yitzhak Shamir, and Menachem Begin and Rabin and Peres in earlier incarnations P.W. Bothas? South Africa's apartheid leaders professed a fascist ideology that held that a white minority had a right to dominate its supposed racial inferiors. By contrast, successive Israeli prime ministers have attempted in good conscience to dispose of disputed lands Israel came in possession of during a war of self-defense, not aggression.

We hardly suppose that Gillerman intended his remarks to be taken this way. Asked by The Jerusalem Post to clarify his statement, Gillerman said he "in no way" compared Israel to South Africa, "but rather [made] the point that while Israel has produced leaders ready to make sacrifices for peace, it has not met a match on the Palestinian side."

Fair enough. Still, if Gillerman is properly to represent Israel at the UN, he must do better than suggest Sharon "may" replicate de Klerk's achievement, as if judgment must be reserved till a future date. The prime minister has not been dealt a hand conducive to peace. It is not for him to be a de Klerk, but rather a David Ben-Gurion, a Levi Eshkol, or a Golda Meir, defending Israel against wanton attack.

The most depressing aspect of this episode is Gillerman's apparent inability to anticipate the damage his remarks may cause, whatever his intention. It has long been a favorite device of Israel's enemies and critics to cite an Israeli historian Benny Morris is a favorite to defend themselves against accusations of anti-Semitism. Gillerman's thoughtless remarks will likely serve as another touchstone. Let's hope this ambassador learns from his mistake.

The Jerusalem Post