Dredging up the Israel/apartheid question

The use of the word "apartheid" by Israel's own Defense Minister makes the demonization campaign impossible

Topics: Israel, Washington, D.C.,

(updated below - Update II – Update III)

In addition to everything else they are, the scribblings on The Washington Post Op-Ed Page are often wildly out of touch.  They often have the feel of having been written a decade ago, stuffed under a mattress somewhere, and then arbitrarily hauled out and dusted off for publication.  With seemingly no trigger, Richard Cohen woke up today and decided to write about a long-standing though not particularly relevant (and largely semantic) controversy:   whether the word “apartheid” is properly applied to Israel due to its control of the West Bank and Gaza, whose non-Jewish residents have no democratic rights in the country that rules over their land.  Cohen, for whatever reasons, focuses on Jimmy Carter’s use of the word in his book from four years ago, and takes the standard, predictable position:  the term is false, deliberately inflammatory, and often the by-product of anti-semitism, etc. etc.  But in dredging up this debate, Cohen completely omits a very recent, highly significant event:  the use of the term by Israel’s own hawkish Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, just four weeks ago:

Israel’s defense minister warned Tuesday that if Israel does not achieve a peace deal with the Palestinians, it will be either a binational state or an undemocratic apartheid state. . . .

“The simple truth is, if there is one state” including Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, “it will have to be either binational or undemocratic. . . . if this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

Writing about the Israel/apartheid controversy without mentioning Barak’s recent statement would be like writing a column about the Senate reconciliation process without mentioning health care, or writing about the U.S. military’s counter-insurgency doctrine without mentioning Afghanistan.  But Cohen’s glaring omission is understandable:  there has been an intense campaign to demonize those who analogize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to apartheid (as Carter did, in the same way as Barak).  That demonization campaign becomes impossible if Israel’s own Defense Minister makes exactly the same point.  So Cohen just shuts his eyes tightly and pretends the whole thing never happened.  Beyond that, Barak’s willingness to explicitly raise the comparison that is all but off-limits in American political discussion once again illustrates the bizarre fact that debates over Israeli policies are far more permissive and open in Israel than they are in the United States.

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UPDATE:  Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has also made the same point:

Israel’s prime minister issued a rare warning yesterday that his nation risked being compared to apartheid-era South Africa if it failed to agree an independent state for the Palestinians. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Ehud Olmert said Israel was “finished” if it forced the Palestinians into a struggle for equal rights.

If the two-state solution collapsed, he said, Israel would “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished” . . . .

Israel has a 20% Arab minority who are citizens and can vote, although they are frequently discriminated against and are described by some as a “demographic threat”. Within a few years the number of Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian territories is expected to equal, and then exceed, the number of Jews in Israel and the settlements.

It is not the first time that Olmert has risked the South African comparison. Four years ago, in another interview with Ha’aretz, he gave a similar warning.

As Matt Duss asks, quoting Cohen’s column of today:  ”Does Richard Cohen think Olmert & Barak were also ‘waving the bloody shirt of racism’ when they warned of apartheid?”


UPDATE II:  From an October, 2007 Haaretz Editorial on the Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians (h/t):

The de facto separation is today more similar to political apartheid than an occupation regime because of its constancy. One side – determined by national, not geographic association – includes people who have the right to choose and the freedom to move, and a growing economy. On the other side are people closed behind the walls surrounding their community, who have no right to vote, lack freedom of movement, and have no chance to plan their future.

I suppose Haaretz Editors were also motivated by anti-semitism or, at the very least, a desire to smear Israel by “waving the bloody shirt of racism.”


UPDATE III:  Several commenters noted that, in the middle of his column, Cohen cited the upcoming “Israeli Apartheid Week” on college campuses, and that this event might have been the trigger for his column.  Fair enough.  It doesn’t change the argument, but it ought to be noted.

Glenn Greenwald
Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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