Weighing the reality and future of Israel as a Jewish state – Sunday Independent, 23 November 2014

Frans Cronje responds to Barney Pityana's article in the Sunday Independent.

In 2013 I visited Israel, at the invitation of members of South Africa's Jewish community, to learn more about the workings of Israel's economy although my trip was of course an opportunity to understand a lot more.

My experience was very different from that described by Professor Barney Pityana in the Sunday Independent last week under the headline Writing on the Wall for Jewish State (see here). The impression Professor Pityana creates is of a country where, as he writes, a "rule by fear prevails" and in which Israeli Jews are the aggressors and Palestinians the victims. The reality is of course infinitely more complex.

I agree with Professor Pityana that the expansion of settlements into the West Bank is provocative and undermines the ideal of a two state solution. There is also little doubt that abuses are perpetrated by Israeli security forces. But such criticisms must be weighed against the following three points in coming to a fair and balanced understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

The first point is that Israel remains the only true democracy in the Middle East. Even Professor Pityana acknowledges the role of the Arab opposition in the Knesset and the extent of internal Israeli civil society criticism of the Israeli government. The fact that such opposition exists undermines the claim that Israel is some form of oppressive dictatorship in which there is no rule of law or access to justice.

Contrary to what I expected, and to what Professor Pityana suggests, there was a considerable degree of Arab/Israeli interaction in civilian life within Israel itself such as Jewish shoppers in Jerusalem's Arab market and Arab shoppers in the Jewish market.

A particularly striking experience at the time I visited was that access to the Dome of the Rock was off limits to Israelis and open only to Palestinians - an arrangement enforced by the Israeli Defence Forces. The former South African journalist and author Benjamin Pogrund (now resident in Jerusalem) recently explained to me that in spite of current demands by right wing Jews insisting on visiting the Temple Mount, the Government of Israel has publically assured King Abdullah (of Jordan, which has a degree of custodianship over the Temple Mount), that it will not allow any infringement of Muslim rights. None of these are actions consistent with a country determined to pursue the single minded persecution of Palestinians at every turn.

The second point is that Israel does face a serious security threat and that this is not some ‘myth' as Professor Pityana suggests or result of a persecution complex. The terrorist attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem this week is a sharp reminder of the threats that face Israeli civilians every day. Evidence I heard in Israel was consistent in the view that the security wall has been effective in restricting terror attacks (such as the bombings of civilian buses) which have declined significantly on the back of tightened border security.

A number of Israeli analysts also say that the presence of Israeli security forces in the West Bank is important in securing a margin of temporary stability in what might otherwise degenerate into a Palestinian on Palestinian conflict.

My experience of these security measures was of course limited. However, on crossing into the West Bank our vehicle was ‘boarded' by Israeli security personnel and I found them to be courteous and efficient as they went about checking passports and asking about the purpose of our visit. Certainly it was a less distressing (and more professional) experience than dealing with Johannesburg's metro police.

Those in our party who travelled more extensively into the West Bank reported that security measures got stricter and were more aggressively enforced in other areas - my experience was limited to travelling to the Fatah headquarters in Ramallah on the way to which we were stopped at Fatah checkpoints.

It struck me at the time that if South Africans were faced with a similar terrorist threat, to that faced by Israeli civilians, they would demand similar security measures and that analysts should thus be cautious in their criticism of Israel's defensive precautions which are often characterised by a degree of self-restraint.

This impression was best substantiated in an article published by Steven Bucci, director of the Allison Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, in July this year. Mr Bucci describes in detail the precision with which Israel attacks terrorist targets and the significant measures it undertakes to warn and evacuate civilians ranging from phone calls and text messages to dud bombs.

Mr Bucci concludes that, "there is no instance in modern military history where a force has taken greater measures to give innocents a chance to get out of the way" and goes on to compare this approach to that of Hamas which intensifies its rocket-fire at times when Israeli schoolchildren will be in the streets.

The third point is that the neat distinction between Israeli Jewish aggressors and Palestinian victims does not really exist. There is much Jewish opposition within Israel to the actions of the Israeli security forces for example. Some of this internal Jewish criticism even seemed naïve about the threats faced by Jews in the region. At the same time several Palestinian groups engage in the torture and abuse of their own people - a number of useful reports to this effect have been produced by Human Rights Watch.

It was even put to me that a number of Palestinians would admit to preferring life under the protection of Israel than remaining exposed to the cruelties perpetrated by Palestinian organisations.

The case of Hamas, perhaps the most prominent of the Palestinian ‘liberation' movements, is a good example. It is an organization that openly perpetrates terror attacks on civilians, tortures those it deems to be collaborators, and engages in the extrajudicial execution of its own people.

The danger of underestimating the influence of such an organization, let alone writing it off as a myth, has been best highlighted in the Unites States hopeless miscalculations on the nature of the Islamic State in Northern Iraq and Syria which perpetrates the most vicious abuses against westerners and followers of Islam alike.

It would simply be wrong to abandon the struggle of the Palestinian people to unchecked rule by such a group and this greatly complicates the search for solutions to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In any event Gaza and the West Bank are not economically viable as they stand. Is there a solution?

The obvious one is to incorporate the West Bank into Jordan - which really is the Palestinian state - and Gaza into Egypt which would place much of the responsibility for securing a solution on Israel's Arab neighbours - a responsibility they are wary of accepting.

The overarching point is therefore that distinguishing the good from the bad in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is more complex than Professor Pityana suggests. To write, as he does, that "one Holocaust does not justify another" and thereby to suggest that Israeli Jews are committing a second Holocaust against the Palestinian people is so absurd as to bring his whole argument into disrepute.

To many Jews this accusation in no doubt so offensive as to take Professor Pityana perilously close to anti-Semitic waters - a feature that crops up time and again in South Africa's broader anti-Israel movement.

My leaving impression was that a significant number of Israeli Jews were strongly in favour of a two state solution. This makes much sense as it is their best - and perhaps only - long term chance at maintaining the dream of a Zionist state.

However, these Israeli moderates were frustrated both by unnecessarily provocative Israeli actions, such as expansion of the West Bank settlements, and by the fact that the Palestinian movement seemed to be dragging its feet in negotiations.

It was increasingly felt that it is now the Palestinian, not the Israeli, leadership that is sabotaging negotiations in the hope that demographics would in time put paid to any two state solution and force a one state solution dominated by Palestinians - what is called the population bomb scenario.

This is an important argument that is never heard in South Africa because it is too inconvenient to those groups which would like to promote a one-sided and ultimately divisive picture of a complex conflict. In doing so, they exacerbate tensions when they should be looking to build support for solutions.

Frans Cronje is CEO of the IRR, a South African think-tank.

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