Israel knows apartheid has no future

Israeli leaders are beginning to acknowledge that their apartheid system cannot go on forever. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

After decades of military rule over Palestinians and theft of our land, Israeli leaders are increasingly seeing the writing on the wall. They are at least acknowledging reality, if not yet grappling with the consequences.

In 2007, Ehud Olmert, then prime minister, declared: “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights [also for the Palestinians in the territories], then, as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.” More recently, making a similar point, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, said “as long as between the Jordan and the sea there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic … If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a bi-national state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.”

But when do the “ifs” of Olmert and Barak no longer describe a possible future, but the current reality? Apartheid is here. There is one set of Israeli laws applied to Palestinians in the West Bank and another set applied to Jews in the West Bank. Israeli settlers live illegally in beautiful subsidized housing on stolen Palestinian land while we are relegated to smaller and smaller bantustans.

I believe, even today, in the importance of the two-state solution. But with every passing day I see what can only be described as Israel’s dogged determination to block such an outcome. The time has come to tell Washington that the viability of the two-state solution is being destroyed on Barack Obama’s watch. President Obama inherited this difficulty from his predecessor. But old problems have become Obama problems.

When Washington fails to act decisively towards this festering conflict, it is in fact acting decisively. Billions of American taxpayers’ dollars continue to flow to Israeli coffers. And American diplomatic capital is still spent to shield Israel from world censure.

I have good reason to believe the intentions of this administration are better than those of predecessors, but the timing for Palestinian freedom is never good, it seems. Presidents and congressional leaders will always face opposition to US calls for constraining Israeli growth in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — if not from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Zionist Organization of America then from the John Hagees of the Christian right. George Mitchell, Obama’s emissary, came to the region touting a full Israeli freeze on settlements. Israel refused and the US flinched. Following last week’s AIPAC conference in Washington, the Americans may flinch a second time. A second cave-in on settlements will signal to Palestinians that the Obama administration is not serious about restraining Israel’s efforts to foil peace talks and the two-state solution.

Like Cassandra, responsible leaders in our region can only warn that allowing Israel to run roughshod over our rights will have dangerous consequences. Anticipating these dangers, colleagues and I have sought to marshal the power of nonviolent direct action against Israel’s occupation and apartheid system to highlight the injustice of its actions and encourage Israelis and American Jews to see that we do not oppose them but the actions of the Israeli government. We have achieved some success, but it is insufficient.

We are now in the early stages of a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) directed at this Israeli government for its refusal to abide by international law. Such action successfully overturned Jim Crow laws in the American South and apartheid in South Africa, and we are slowly applying it to Israeli occupation and apartheid. But until students seize on it with the same moral fervency as earlier generations did against Jim Crow and South African apartheid, we will achieve only marginal success.

That day of student engagement is coming. I have spoken on many American and European campuses and see change in the more diverse audiences I address today as opposed to 20 years ago. These young people, including many progressive Jewish activists, recognize that this is not a conflict between Arabs and Jews, but between universal conceptions of freedom and antiquated notions of racial supremacy and colonization. These audiences are on the road to endorsing the BDS campaign because they are aware that their political leaders are, with rare exceptions, unwilling to challenge Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians.

American politicians may be the last to embrace our struggle — be it the urgency of a truly sovereign Palestinian state side by side with Israel or one state with equal rights for all — but the equation is shifting and their calculus will not always be towards knee-jerk support for Israel. Our moral case is too powerful.

Mustafa Barghouthi is secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. This article originally appeared in the Financial Times and is republished with the author’s permission.