Nine years ago, amid higher levels of political violence than had ever occurred before, white South Africans went to the polls. This was not an election but a referendum: should the negotiation process initiated in February 1990 continue? The result was an overwhelming yes. Somehow we realized that the game was up. Apartheid was finished, and the peace process, no matter how violently chaotic it seemed in 1992, simply had to continue. The result of the recent Israeli election seems, from my South African perspective, to be the equivalent of a no vote.
A few years ago, while teaching political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, I was a very junior member of an international research team examining nongovernmental organizations involved in peace and conflict resolution in South Africa, Israel, Palestine and Northern Ireland. During our research process, we witnessed with delight, and not a little skepticism, the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland, something that was hardly expected. Skeptics and optimists alike have in the slow, painful, ongoing process had much to reflect upon. We also noted that the descent into civil war predicted for South Africa by the prophets of doom had not happened. Only in the Middle East did things appear insoluble.
At one of our conferences, held in Cape Town, an Israeli researcher, Ben, remarked, It is easier for me to get on a plane and fly to Cape Town to meet with Manuel [the Palestinian research team leader] than to drive 40 minutes to his home in Bethlehem! When the name Ariel Sharon was mentioned in passing, another Israelia major in the Israeli Army reservesgrimaced with a mixture of pain and disgust.
All of us, whatever our nationalities or political affiliations, were delighted when the long-awaited peace process in the Middle East got under way. It felt as if peace, reason and good will had at last prevailed over the forces of nationalist xenophobia and religious fundamentalisms. As hard-nosed political analysts, we were all too aware that the game was far from over. Questions of land and freedom, democratization and reconciliation were far from resolved. Islamic extremists within movements like Hamas were still baying for Israeli blood. Extreme Israeli nationalists, many but not all of them recently immigrated ultra-Orthodox Jews, fiercely resisted the idea of ever ceding land to the Palestinians. There were problems too with the Palestinian National Authority, mainly problems of corruption and political heavy-handedness. Peace was hardly promoted by the anti-Israeli, even anti-Semitic, rhetoric of some members of the Palestine Legislative Council, the parliament of the P.N.A.
A Holy City
Above all there was the problem of the future of Jerusalem/Al-Quds. Palestinians and Israelis alike claim it as their country’s capital. Moreover, Jerusalem is a holy city, the spiritual center of Judaism and Christianity and the third holiest city of Islam. It is a place of pilgrimage and prayer and has also given its name to a dangerous form of hysteria, Jerusalem Syndrome, in which a seemingly normal believer gets carried away by religious zeal and attacks people of other faiths. In recent months it was a site of confrontations between Jews and Muslims that have their roots in beliefs that holy sites were being desecrated by the other side.
One of the key figures in the early stages of what has come to be called in some circles the Second Intifada (uprising) was none other than Israel’s new Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. This is ironic and not surprising. Sharon was the architect of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a devastating military campaign that badly tarnished Israel’s international human rights image, even among its allies, and helped to generate waves of internal Israeli dissent, culminating in a revived peace movement.
It is this Intifada that has led to the electoral victory of the right under Ariel Sharon. The election will inevitably be seen as an unofficial referendum on the peace process, as much a referendum as the 1992 South African referendum was on our peace process. In 1992 well over two thirds of white South Africa, most of whom were as wedded to the idea of apartheid then as they were before 1990, voted to continue the process despite the violence and uncertainty. Few had any illusions about the outcome. The idea of partitiontwo countrieswas simply not in the cards. It was neither economically viable nor politically acceptable. Segregation had failed. White minority rule was over.
Christian faith and Christian values played a highly ambivalent role in the struggle against apartheid. Most Christians and most churches opposed apartheid on principle, though some were its apologists. Unlike their status in South Africa, Christians in Palestine-Israel are a tiny minority. Almost all Christians in the region are Palestinians. They occupy a difficult position, being about 10 percent of an overwhelmingly Muslim population that has in recent years become increasingly fundamentalist in tone. Despite this, these ChristiansLatin and Eastern Rite Catholics, Orthodox and Protestantare among the strongest supporters of a Palestinian state.
Some, like the Rev. Elias Chacour, a Greek Catholic (Melkite) and an Israeli citizen, stress the contribution that Israeli Jews have made to the region, but plead that all people be aware of the tragic dispersal of Palestinians after the foundation of the State of Israel, something that Israel also caused. Father Chacour has dedicated his life to nonviolence and the promotion of dialogue and good relations among Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Canon Naim Ateek, pastor of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem, shares Father Chacour’s longing for peace. He too understands how Israeli Jews have a sense of their identity bound up with the land. So too, he points out, do Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The problem, he has suggested, is that the State of Israel has tried to deny history, pretending that there was no history between 135 A.D. (the destruction of the Jewish state under the Roman Empire) and 1948 A.D. Quoting Ezekiel 47, he has begged the Israeli state not to deny history: there are now other people who are living on the land. Today he would like to see the coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Palestine.
The point, he has argued, is that in order to be living in the land and to fulfill our religious duties here, we do not need exclusive political control over it. There can be no peace until the land is shared.
Is there any possibility of this happening now? Even more critical, is partition still possible, particularly given the intransigence of both Israelis and Palestinians over Jerusalem?
We can still hope that the peace process will continue despite what will inevitably be perceived as reaction on the part of Israel. Both sides may still somehow make a deal about territoryeven about Jerusalem. There are, however, many potential pitfalls.
Conflict and Tension
The already less than stable Palestinian National Authority might find itself facing a major crisis from within. Islamist fundamentalism is already very strong; with an Israeli government whose leadership is prone to saber rattling, there is an added temptation to extremism. A movement like Hamas, with its narrow interpretation of Islam, its endorsement of jihad (holy war) as a means, and its tendency toward xenophobia (both anti-Semitism in particular and religious exclusivism in general), can only gain political ground. It can proclaim the incapability of the more secularist and moderate Palestine Liberation Organization to deliver the political goods. Anti-Jewishand perhaps anti-Christianviolence may well flare up. This will inevitably play into the hands of the Israeli right (within both government and civil society). Hamas can play up popular discontent among Palestinians with the P.L.O.-led P.N.A., highlighting not only its political weaknesses, but also corruption and almost inevitably its failure to create a truly Islamic State.
The outcomes could be quite terrifying: an Islamist electoral victory that heightens Israeli-Palestinian tensions and damages Palestinian minority rights as well as social rights for Palestinian women; mounting political violence in the region, leading perhaps to an Israeli takeover of the Palestinian territories, which would probably lead to all-out war.
It is doubtful that there would be a war between Israel and the Arab world in general, though. Economic self-interest, global concerns about relations with Europe and North America, and general political disunity between Arab and other, more geographically distant Muslim countries (like Indonesia) make this unlikely. On the other hand, it is conceivable that a few states (called in U.S. parlance rogue states) like Libya, Iran or Iraq might either intervene or send in military support to a Palestinian territory at war with Israel. And if Israel were to start losing, Israel might be tempted to resort to any and all means at its disposal. And Israel is a nuclear state.
I fervently hope that none of these scenarios come to pass. For the sake of all, I hope that good sense and calm prevail, that negotiation leads to a settlement equitable to all sidesat least that a state emerges in Palestine that is politically and economically viable, governed by a popularly elected party that respects the diversity of allChristian, Muslim and Jew alikewho live within its borders. Religious fundamentalism in any form is unhealthy; in a state it is corrosive of civil society and democratic values.
But are we not perhaps fooling ourselves? Given the excruciating burden of history, is partition still possible? Even without a return of Palestinian exiles, the population of Palestinian Arab Israeli citizens (who enjoy full voting rights even today) may well outstrip Israeli Jews by the end of the 21st century. Unless the state were to institute a fairly radical apartheid program including the disenfranchising of its Palestinian Arab citizens, Israelis may wake up the morning after an election day to an elected government that is Arab.
No Going Back
Apartheid failed in South Africa. No matter the difficulties South Africans experience in building a non-racial democratic society (and in all honesty I must admit that there are difficulties), there can be no going back. Looking at it from my South African perspective, it would be far better now to start a process that would lead to a secular democratic state (such as Israel is now) that includes the whole territory of what before 1948 was Palestine. Under such a state, the undisputed capital would be Jerusalem. What is now a symbol of religious conflict and divided nationhood would become a sign of unity, coexistence and hopenot only for a united country, but also for the real possibility of cooperation and dialogue for all three of our faiths, the Peoples of the Book.
There is danger that the tensions in Israel-Palestine over religion and land, blood and belonging, will intensify. In 1992 all South Africans were standing amid mounting conflict, looking into the abyss. We turned around, walked back into the conflict and walked through it to 1994. It has not been easy, but ultimately it has been worth it.
May Godthe same God of Jews, Christians and Muslimssteer the people of Palestine-Israel away from the abyss, guide them through the conflict that comes with nation-building and bring them all into their common Promised Land.