Lessons from South Africa: On the Path to Negotiations with Leverage

Solidarity disclaimer: This piece was written about a half a year ago, as I returned excitedly from a workshop in South Africa. These are my (a privileged beneficiary of the Israeli apartheid system) conclusions and analysis, and in no way presume to be an “ultimate truth”, or an attempt at dictation for Palestinian action. I only hope that it’s instructive and serves as yet another window, out of many, for thoughts, debate and input. The word “we” refers to participants of the workshop.

Often when I’m asked what the point of BDS is, I quickly answer “to get the Israeli regime  to the negotiating table with no preconditions” and then I move on to tactics. Sometimes we get so mired in the blood and brutality on our path of resistance, that we need to be yanked out of it, in order to stop and see our golden milestones.

Negotiations and the Death of Liberation

I was yanked to South Africa for a week for a history workshop. Walking its past and present with our South African allies, who guided us through their own very similar path, I was surprised to rediscover a golden milestone. It was a table-round a-ha moment, shared by both Palestinians and state-designated-Jews. We were all baffled by the simplicity of it. When the ANC took its actions, whether military, diplomatic, or propaganda, it had a goal in mind: Negotiations.

Zionism’s biggest success to date, is probably the killing of the avenue of diplomacy. Negotiations, in Palestine- cynically named “The Peace Process”- is something that both the beneficiary population of apartheid and its victim population have come to understand as irrelevant to them. Something dictated by the United States, every once in a while, that goes nowhere and has no real bearing on our lives. Palestinians know that no justice will come out of it, and Israelis know that no concessions on their part will be made through it.

Obviously, this is where the similarities end. While the oppressors can sit back and relax, the question emerges for the oppressed: If liberation is only possible through a diplomatic solution, and diplomacy is only done by out-of-touch representatives, how can a point be reached, where negotiations aren’t a cynical euphemism, but an honest and just milestone to liberation?

Unity is Already Here

Another missing milestone that we unearthed during our workshop was the Freedom Charter. While I was in disagreement with the rest of our team that the charter in itself is more than a mere symbolic act, we all agreed that unifying statements made collectively as a result of separate representatives of different segments of the society, hashing out their differences, are an imperative milestone on the way to liberation, as they clarify our points of unity.

My argument with the group was that a Freedom Charter of sorts has already been written and is embodied in the Palestinian Call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and that a vision of liberation is very clearly stated within it:

  1. Ending [Israel’s] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall 
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 
  3. Respecting,protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

In effect, what we have here is a charter representing “the three integral parts of the people of Palestine: Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel” demanding reparations for an ongoing historic wrong and equality with the privileged Jewish minority, endorsed by “The Palestinian political parties, unions, associations, coalitions and organizations”.

Unlike the Freedom Charter which served black South Africans and Africans of color only as a unifying vision, the Palestinian Call for BDS is also a call to action. The one missing link in the Call is the specification of negotiations as a tactical milestone on the way to liberation. So while on paper, Palestinian leaders are united with a vision and call to action for Palestinian and international civil society, it seems that their role and obligations have yet to be truly addressed.

Palestinian Empowerment in the Age of Zionism

Any comparison of two situations will have us examine both similarities and differences. While I was dumbfounded at the similarities between the South African apartheid system and the Israeli apartheid system (which could be summed up as “the banality of evil”), a few historical differences are crucial to the understanding of our present.

While the apartheid system in South Africa was devised as a kind of tool “inherent” in the racism resulting in an already completed colonization, Israel is devising its apartheid system while still in the process of colonizing Palestine. In the case of South Africa, all in it were South Africans, hence the negotiations focused on a future of everyone in it. In the case of Palestine, still under takeover, the international borders aren’t clear and always subject to change. This results in negotiations focused on the ever-shrinking borders, instead of basic human rights and the governing regime’s obligation to enable and uphold them.

In addition to the aforementioned yet-to-be-addressed role and obligations of Palestinian political leaders, another key issue that comes up with negotiations is the question of representation. Much has been said about the Palestinian equivalent to the ANC, the PA dominated PLO, and its disconnect from its people. It isn’t a simple-minded act of racism on the part of the facilitators of the negotiations (the U.S.A), or the oppressing party (Israel), to assume that all Palestinians are represented in the PA. It’s a very deliberate attempt to undermine a majority of Palestinians- in occupied territories and in exile- that still want the issue of colonization on the table. Worldwide observers should be very suspicious, when on one hand a major internal Palestinian issue is unity, and on the other, their oppressors are adamant that one out of a multitude of parties and other civil society representatives will suffice for just negotiations. This holds true especially concerning refugees, who’s physical absence from the geographical territory serves to exclude them from any potential democratic process.

Keeping colonization on the table also allows us to fully comprehend that Palestinian citizens of Israel are not in a “post-colonial” time warp. They also have a role in the apartheid machine and they also resist it. Allowed by their oppressor to take part in its game of “democracy”, they’ve fashioned their minority parties- their representatives. I’ve heard it said that these parties only assist in Israel’s strategy of divide-and-conquer of Arab people in Palestine, but to this I argue that every segment of the oppressed must be represented in accordance with their experienced reality. The only question remaining is, when the time comes, will the Arab parties of Israel’s parliament be allowed to represent their constituencies in a way that respects the complexity of their situation?

Negotiations with Leverage: Predicting a Revolution

How much pressure will be enough pressure for the Israeli regime to come to the negotiating table without preconditions to the Palestinian populations under its control, is a question that’s answer is hard to predict. Israel is no different from any other contested regime in that its collapse can be foretold in its own implosive behavior. Some may say that the 1967 occupation was the beginning of the end (often stated in the immoral meta- oxymoron of “the occupation corrupts”), but in terms of a colonizing power, that was probably Israel’s “best move”; De-facto annexation of more land for the young state and preparing the ground to becoming an “experience-based” arms technology mega- manufacturer.

I personally believe that the Tel Aviv Exchange market heyday that coincided with the carpet bombings of Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, was Israel’s last hurrah. While arms tech sales went through the roof, the images of dead, ash-covered Palestinian babies being pulled out of the rubble by their grieving fathers did not leave the world indifferent. This brutal, extravagant act of arrogance (along with the beginnings of Netanyahu’s war on Iran) wasn’t brought on by external pressure. All of Israel’s “moderate” acts of implosion thereafter, however, are a direct result of the international pressure that exploded as a reaction to Cast Lead.

In a sense, when coming to South Africa, I really didn’t expect to learn anything new. The Palestinian unity in strategy and vision have been laid out for the world to see in the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It’s a call that analyzes Israel’s military and apartheid policies as means to a colonial end, and it also understands that colonialism and capitalism (the prioritizing of profit over human bodies, animal bodies, the environment, and their abuse for profit) go hand in hand. It demands that civil society world-wide prioritize Palestinian life as any other, and not allow Palestinians to be used as corporate cannon fodder and lab rats. And still, this golden milestone of negotiations has emerged for all of us in the workshop as something new- a revelation of sorts. It may just be that being mired in blood and brutality has made me cynical enough to believe that we could accomplish this revolution without a Freedom Charter, but I still believe in the importance of visions. And I think it’s time to envision what honest and just negotiations will look like.

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