In the quest for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, commentators of various shades of political opinion have referred to recent South African history as a useful analogy. They have tended to draw specific conclusions generally reaffirming their preferred solutions, and perhaps the analogy has been taken too far. Yet there are a number of lessons to be learned from the South African experience: The South African model suggests that the decisive factor is the readiness to engage in the process of change, not the promise of a particular result.

Lesson I: Change followed the collapse of the old apartheid order.

Faced with the collapse of the apartheid system and understanding that change was inevitable, voices of reason within the administration spoke of ways to perpetuate Afrikaner power once white hegemony had gone - effectively a damage-limitation exercise.
It is interesting to speculate how this factor relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Does it mean that the ruling elite in Israel will have to admit that the present situation is untenable and convince the electorate of this, before any major change is possible?

Lesson II: The majority of blacks and whites renounced violence in favor of negotiation as the best means to achieve their ends.

When P.W. Botha became prime minister in 1978, an overthrow of the regime was not imminent; the army and police were in firm control and could contain the resistance. By the mid-1980s, however, the nationalist government saw the writing on the wall and decided on reform as the only reasonable means to secure their future. They also reluctantly began talking to black leaders.
The process, which started tentatively under Botha, was taken a step further by F.W. de Klerk as the Nationalist Party gradually accepted that apartheid was indeed unworkable. In fact, they faced a stark choice between war and compromise. De Klerk, essentially a pragmatist, calculated the odds and decided that they favored a deal with the African National Congress (ANC). He first lifted the ban on liberation movements, then released Nelson Mandela from prison and negotiated with him face-to-face.
Yet, for all the good intentions of the majority, the reconciliation process was constantly under threat from sporadic politically motivated violence and assassinations. It was never plain sailing; many storms had to be weathered.
For Israelis and Palestinians, the message here is quite clear: To reach a peaceful settlement, both sides will need to renounce violence in any form and resort to negotiation - with all its attendant problems.

Lesson III: The negotiation process was arduous for both sides.

The two sides approached the negotiations with very different expectations of what form they would take and what their outcome would be; they were both moving into uncharted territory. What they shared was their determination to make the process work.
From early on in Mandela's incarceration, the ANC offered to negotiate with the government, but the offer was disregarded. All South African governments had held it as a basic tenet that "you don't talk to terrorists." Deeply held beliefs were hard to dispense with when the time came to sit down together. It took enormous courage and perseverance to get to the stage of meaningful talks, finally ending in a negotiated resolution.
If Israelis and Palestinians finally reach the stage of genuine, meaningful negotiations, the process is bound to be protracted and difficult.

Lesson IV: Change in South Africa did not take place in a vacuum.

Events in the wider world had a profound effect on the mentality of South Africans. In this context the disintegration of the Soviet Union - symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall - only weeks after de Klerk became president cannot be overestimated. In practical terms, the fear for white South Africans of being overwhelmed by the "red peril" receded with the collapse of the Communist system. What was happening beyond the country's borders shaped government attitudes and policies and influenced the resistance movements.
This raises the question of whether certain critical factors in the wider world will have to change before real progress can be made in Israeli-Palestinian relations. One such factor could be greater acceptance of Israel in the Middle East, as envisaged by the Saudi Peace Initiative of 2002.

Lesson V: The relatively bloodless change was facilitated by the presence of two remarkable leaders.

Although their role must not be overstated, most analysts agree that without de Klerk and Mandela, things would have looked very different. It required the coincidence of a pragmatic, brave leader who was prepared to take risks on the one side, and a gifted, great leader who was able to put the past behind him on the other, to steady the ship of South Africa.
Both de Klerk and Mandela struggled to convince their respective constituencies that compromise through negotiation was the best path, and to retain the allegiance of disparate forces. In fact, as late as 1993, when the new constitution was passed, the country still teetered on the brink of civil war. There was nothing inevitable about a peaceful end to apartheid.
It is clear that both the Palestinians and the Israelis are going to need courageous, inspired leaders to strike out on the path of reconciliation and to stick to it.

Lesson VI: Real change became possible only after both sides admitted that they faced a lose-lose situation.

Change is possible only when you realize that the path you are on is leading nowhere or perhaps to catastrophe. Once that point has been reached, alternatives can be sought, irrespective of how novel or frightening they may be. Politicians, for their part, are likely to entertain the thought of a fundamental policy shift only when they recognize that they are in a lose-lose situation. Conversely, the struggle will continue as long as one side believes that it can win and impose its will on the other side.
By the late 1980s the leaders of all the communities in South Africa found themselves staring into the abyss before they recognized that drastic change was needed. The country was in a state of internal upheaval characterized by incessant inter- and intra-racial strife; the economy was stagnant, hamstrung by external sanctions and the rising cost of internal unrest and crippling strikes. In addition, all sides were tired of fighting.
At present, both players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict believe that they can prevail by pursuing their current strategies; their willingness to shed blood is undiminished. Neither is convinced that the path it is on is leading to catastrophe, and it remains an open question whether, or when, this will change.
In the case of South Africa, the collapse of apartheid sparked a process that eventually led to a peaceful transition to black majority rule. Crucially, the major players reached the point where they were ready and resolved to embark on a process of change. Within that process the renunciation of violence was a key factor, as was the realization that they had arrived at a stalemate. If not for the long, intense series of negotiations, no agreement would ever have been reached on a constitution. The willingness to cut the Gordian knot determined the timing of events: before the apocalypse.
While there can be no exact replication of historical circumstances, the South African model provides a pointer to some of the preconditions for peaceful change. It could also serve as a constructive alternative to the models perpetually under consideration for the Middle East: "crisis-management," "solution-oriented," "peace plan," "peace process," "road map" - all of which have failed to move the parties. Clearly, each case is going to be different, but barring the intervention of a deus ex machina, the protagonists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have to learn a lesson or two from South Africa and negotiate similar territory to reach a peaceful settlement. As yet they have barely begun to approach the milestones on the road to changes of comparable magnitude. Perhaps they think the apocalypse is still some way off.