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
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
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
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
Lesson III: The negotiation process was arduous for both
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
Lesson IV: Change in South Africa did not take place in a
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
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
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
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.