Apartheid Israel

Is Israel a settler colony like South Africa?: A guest column

This blog is fortunate to get regular contributions from Tom Mitchell, a scholar who has carefully analyzed the similarities and differences between Israel, South Africa and Northern Ireland. He sent me a summary of a longer article. I thought I would publish it, as people on the far left often claim that there is little difference between South Africa under apartheid and contemporary Israel. And people on the right deny that there is any similarity. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. In addition. peaceniks like me often point to the reconciliation achieved in Northern Ireland as a sign of hope and a shining example for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tom offers some insights into the similarities and differences.

Tom is the author if Native vs. Settler: Ethnic Conflict in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, published in 2000 by Greenwood Press. He then took some of the unused material from that book and wrote a second one, Indispensable Traitors: Liberal Parties in Settler Conflicts, also published by Greenwood two years later. Below is the summary of an article published in the Journal of Conflict Studies in the Winter 2004 issue. It is scholarly and not polemical, which means some of you will have no use for it, but I hope the rest if you dive in and follow his analysis.


Conventional wisdom in much of Western academia is that Israel is a settler colony, and that this means that it is another apartheid state a/la South Africa. Below is analysis showing why I believe that the first half of this equation is true, but the second half is false. The strategies employed to bring peace in South Africa and Northern Ireland were very different, so it is important to determine which one Israel more closely resembles. This determines why we should go with mediation and not sanctions.

Israel’s politics is characterized by the following six main features:

1) Numerous political parties are in the Knesset, which in turn results in weak coalition governments.
2) There are powerful religious parties with no equivalent in the West and comparable to Islamic parties in the Third World (Indonesia, Turkey).
3) Israeli politics is populated with many former senior military officers, creating a class of Arab-fighter politicians comparable to native-fighter politicians in the U.S. and S. Africa.
4) In the past, there were two important parties (Herut, Ahdut Ha’Avoda) that were paramilitary parties. Their descendants are the two main Israeli parties today.
5) The Arab question or native question has been the main issue in Israeli politics, dividing parties of the left and right since before independence.
6) In Israel, Jews and Arabs have a different legal status under formal law constituting a legal distinction between settlers and natives.

These six features can be divided into two groups: the first two, which are not features of settler societies, and the last four, which are features of settler societies. The combination of the last four features makes Israeli politics a variant of settler politics—the political features that are typical of independent settler colonies such as the United States, South Africa, etc. that are also democracies.

When looking for settler societies to compare Israel with, I looked for societies that were a) democratic; b) involved in prolonged conflict with the native population; and c) either independent or at least autonomous. This last requirement eliminated nearly all of the dependent settler colonies that were run by local representatives of the European settler power rather than by the local settlers.

I found three societies that could usefully be compared with Israel: Northern Ireland, antebellum America, and South Africa. Each of these three societies is useful for comparing with a different aspect of Israel.

Northern Ireland exhibits all of the above six features except for number 3 (because the UK is responsible for its security). The United States exhibited traits 3,5, and 6, and briefly had a multiparty system between 1828 and 1860 but no coalition governments. South Africa exhibited traits 3, 5, and 6 and had a genuine multiparty system from 1910 to 1950 and had two stable two-party coalition governments in the interwar period. Thus, if one looks at it, Israel has more of these settler traits than any of the three societies being compared with it. Northern Ireland lacks a native-fighter politician class, while both the U.S. and S. Africa lack paramilitary parties.

Northern Ireland can most usefully be compared with Israel when examining the peace process with the Palestinians and interparty and intraparty dynamics. Because it is only a province of the UK, it has no foreign policy and so cannot be used for comparison of foreign policy with Israel. But because the Arab-fighter politician class is such an important feature in Israeli politics, comparisons of Israel with Northern Ireland need to supplemented with either the U.S. or S. Africa. .

South Africa can be divided into three main periods: the period of the Boer republics from 1860-1900; the Union of South Africa from 1910-1950; and the Republic of South Africa from 1961-1994. African-fighter politicians were most important in the South African Republic (ZAR or Transvaal), particularly from 1881 to 1900. But the ZAR had a weak two-party system rather than a multiparty system, had no standing army, and had less than 10,000 men voting in its presidential elections during this period. So it is clearly not suitable for comparison with Israel.

Military politicians were also important in the Union of South Africa, which did have a three- to four-party system, a standing army, and a much larger population. There were no military conflicts with the native population of South Africa, however, during this period. Politics was centered on ethnic disputes between Afrikaners and English-speakers rather than on the native question. During the Republic of South Africa under apartheid, there was only one elected African-fighter politician, General Magnus Malan. This indicates that South Africa is not a particularly useful supplementary case for looking at internal politics in Israel.

The U.S. had a weak three-party system from 1828 to 1848, with the third party being mainly represented at the local and state levels rather than the federal level, present only in the North, and combining with one or both of the two main parties to form new parties. With its presidential system. it completely lacked coalition governments. But the U.S. did have a party, the Whigs, that was dependent on the charisma of former generals to head its tickets. And it did carry out transfer of the native population, the Indians of the East to the West. This latter subject comes up off and on in Israeli politics since the 1940s. The Whigs can usefully be compared to Labor, the Democrats to the Likud, and the third parties (Antimasons, Liberty Party, Free Soil Party) to Mapam and Meretz. The Know Nothings or American Party of 1854-57 can also be compared to Tommy Lapid’s Shinui Party both as a nativist party and with its sudden success and sudden collapse. Beyond that party comparisons are not available.

South Africa is useful for comparing with Israel’s regional defense policy. South Africa and Israel both were/are peripheral countries in conflict with the core of their region. In the Middle East the core is Arab states. In sub-Saharan Africa the core is made up of independent African states and the white settler colonies were the periphery. South Africa and Israel had similar strategies of supporting minority peoples in the Arab countries and black neighbors such as the Kurds in Iraq and Christians in Lebanon and Sudan, and the Ndebele in Zimbabwe and various minority peoples in Namibia. Both countries also engaged in numerous cross-border raids and invasions. In this regard it is useful to compare Israeli policy in Lebanon and South African policy in Angola.

Between 1967 and the mid-1990s Israel was dependent on migrant Palestinian labor from the territories in the same way that white South Africa was dependent on black labor from the homelands (bantustans). But this migrant Palestinian labor is much reduced today as a result of Israeli recruitment of East Asian and East European workers in reaction to the Islamist terrorist campaign of the 1990s and the Al-Aksa Intifada.

Likud plans for a Palestinian state under Sharon could also fairly be compared to South Africa’s bantustan system. Any plans for leaving a Palestinian state made up of several non-contiguous parts can be compared to most of the South African homelands in particular the KwaZulu and Bophutatswana homelands. With the above in my opinion, the usefulness of the South African comparison has exhausted itself.

The purpose of making these comparisons is not to delegitimize Israel. It should be borne in mind that the Israeli Jews are not only settlers but also returned natives, that is the original population of the country that returned with the support of the international community. So in its origins Israel is a unique settler society. But as a result of the ongoing native-settler conflict with the Palestinians, Israel developed features typical of other settler societies.

The comparisons are not meant to replace traditional methods of political analysis of Israeli politics and policy, but to augment them. When radio telescopes, X-ray telescopes and infrared telescopes were developed, astronomers did not stop using optical telescopes but merely used these new instruments to give a fuller picture of distant galaxies and our own galaxy. I make these comparisons in the same spirit. If Dan will indulge me, I will explore the lessons of Northern Ireland and the U.S. for Israel in two further pieces.

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