The world looks different from the southern tip of Africa. There a courageous venture in nation-building is taking place after the country liberated itself a decade ago from a racist, colonialist regime. There a democratic constitution has evolved that officially recognizes 11 languages within a multi-ethnic, multi-tribal and multi-religious nation, on the basis of citizenship equality.
In South Africa, a revolution has been transformed into a state, not only through struggle and perseverance but also through negotiations and compromise solutions that made such a transformation possible. These compromises have sometimes given rise to contentions that, although the African National Congress (ANC) has acceded to government, it has failed to gain economic or political power. The descendants of the white settlers - the children of the old order - still control the country's major companies and a substantial share of the media. There are still problems of land ownership, housing and chronic poverty among the non-whites. The state is committed to repaying its former debts and to respecting all the international agreements concluded by the old regime, including those with Israel. On the other hand, the black middle class is expanding and the country is undergoing a gradual but radical change.

A Historic Deal

The victims of apartheid had to content themselves with public confessions and pleas for forgiveness by the perpetrators of the crimes against them before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Still, those whites who gave the orders that led to crimes against humanity and those who executed them were brought to justice. But some tried to take advantage of the spirit of reconciliation and attempted to equate the ANC violence with the violence carried out by the whites, and to call for ANC members guilty of civilian deaths to also be brought to justice. In a debate over the erection of a liberation monument in a Pretoria park, the request was made to include the names of the "victims" of the white regime alongside the names of the resistance fighters. In other words, the vestiges of the previous regime would like to exploit the historic deal to rewrite history by equating the persecuted with the persecutors.
The ANC deal with the ruling apartheid elites was comprehensive and far-reaching. It was predicated on the recognition of the justness of equality and the rejection of racism. There could never be parity between freedom and slavery, between resistance and oppression, or a compromise between two rights: that of the victim and that of the victimizer. The objective accomplished was the disintegration of apartheid. And to allow this to take place peacefully, the deal made it easy for the regime to dissolve itself, and for the leadership to relinquish power without fear of reprisals or, indeed, revenge against the whites in general. It dealt with mechanisms of implementation, with timelines, and how to bring the past to account. The deal did not incorporate forgiveness for the system but for the people who were instruments of the system, and for certain individuals who were in charge, as long as they were not directly responsible for crimes against humanity.

Transcending Narrow Domestic Concerns

It is interesting that these discussions in South Africa should coincide with a stage when the Palestinians and their attempt to end the apartheid system in Palestine are in a state of turmoil, which has left the friends of the Palestinian people in South Africa and elsewhere at a loss: Should they be more Palestinian than the Palestinians? And should they support Hamas or Fateh? Would it be possible to call for a boycott of Israel when the Palestinian leadership is engaged in a process of normalization with it? In Palestine normalization has preceded the conclusion of a peace deal, which, in any event, will not bring an end to the bigoted regime.
This did not happen in South Africa. And after making the transition to statehood, South Africa now has the concerns of a sovereign state. For example, realpolitik impels South Africa to have staunch relations with the United States, in spite of its objections to U.S. warmongering policies in the Gulf region, and in spite of the fact that the U.S. joined the boycott against apartheid only when its demise was imminent. South Africa has also maintained its relations with Israel, although the military treaties concluded with the former regime have not been renewed. The supporters of Israel among the former regime invoke the same political realism and transpose the arguments they advanced to the Palestinian-Israeli case. They view the Palestinian problem as a struggle between two sides over a land to which both have equal rights. They talk about the necessity of South Africa to support the peace process and the "moderates on both sides," and to adopt a balanced position.
I recently participated in part of these discussions in South Africa between current ministers who had been prominent figures in the liberation movement - ranging from the more ideologically inclined to the staunchest pragmatists. Yet even those leaders who most champion realism assert that South Africa cannot remain neutral in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but condemns the occupation and affirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. But what is on the table as far as it is concerned is a peace process that would lead to a two-state settlement and with which it has to deal. As one prominent ANC personality told me: "We advised them [the Palestinians] at the time not to accept Oslo. As you know, we do not like ethnic-state solutions to a problem of this kind, but this was your choice. We, too, did not want any African or friendly country to interfere in our affairs." Another resistance leader and current a minister told me that Israel is viewed as an apartheid regime and this is a matter of concern to South Africa, regardless of the geographical distance, for the struggle against racism defines its identity.
Furthermore, the two-state solution that is being promoted today will not lead to two states or to a truly sovereign Palestinian state, but to the solidification of the Israeli state on the ruins of the Palestinian people and to Bantustans - and in South Africa they know only too well the meaning of "Bantustan." The former South African regime had set up political entities of this kind and placed them under the tutelage of puppet rulers in order to get rid of the demographic burden of the non-whites. In the case of a Palestinian-Israeli solution, there is no room for a historic deal that would facilitate the dismantlement of the Zionist regime and the assimilation of the Israelis into the region. Nor is there a deal that could lead to a secular democratic bi-national or multi-ethnic state, as advanced by certain political forces as a viable alternative to the two-state solution.

A Time for Decisions

So what can the friends of the Palestinian people do if they wish to express their solidarity because they view discrimination and colonialism as issues of universal moral importance and not only of national or domestic concern? There are preparations for a conference that the Americans call "a meeting" - to avoid embarrassment and unrealistic expectations of what is only an exercise in public relations. The outcome of the "conference" will not be a surprise as the contours of a final settlement have begun to emerge: they do not include the right of return for the Palestine refugees, or East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, or the dismantlement of Jewish settlements or the withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders. The Zionist regime, on the other hand, will remain fully intact, although the issue of discrimination will then become an internal matter.
The time has come to make a decision:
1) To accept this settlement that will take years to implement. During this time Israel will wrest normalization with every Arab country in the region, and won't keep a shred of unity among the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Water and air will be turned into matters to be settled through political concessions, and the question of the prisoners will itself become the issue instead of the cause for which they were imprisoned. Or:
2) To propose an alternative solution that allows those opposed to the settlement to define their demands and to let people understand what it means to stand against occupation and to aspire to national liberation within the context of a democratic political program.

Let us consider one example. The boycott against apartheid was the chief weapon that led to its collapse. While it is clearly difficult to boycott Israel, it is equally clear that Israel is hypersensitive to the slightest hint of a boycott, for Israel does not survive through normal relations as South Africa used to do; it relies on preferential treatment and prerogatives. A boycott is also disconcerting to certain Palestinian leaders who are engaged in the normalization process with Israel even before a settlement has been reached. They are embarrassed by the British universities' decision to boycott Israeli universities; and the same goes for Palestinian institutes that have joint projects with Israeli universities. Naturally, some democratic Israeli academics are opposed to the boycott, not necessarily out of nationalistic or personal motives. They do not realize, however, that the only decisive action against occupation is not the demonstrations on a Saturday, or discussions with Palestinian intellectuals, but the readiness to pay the price for their stand.
A unified national liberation plan opposed to the current developments in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating arena is a Palestinian imperative. The alternative program must tell the Palestinian people and the world what Hamas really wants. Does it only wish to go back to power-sharing with Fateh? And what do the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine want? And, for that matter, what does a large segment of Fateh want? All these forces have to assume their responsibilities before it is too late. They have to set aside their diverging ideologies and to emerge as a strong, unified force, and present to the world an alternative democratic national program. This is the role of leadership.

This article was originally published in the Arabic daily Al-Quds on August 10, 2007. This translation was published with the author's permission.