Ian Austin: Calling Israel an “apartheid state” is a barrier to peace

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It’s extraordinary to think it’s been 25 years since millions of us sat transfixed by live footage of Nelson Mandela walking to freedom.

As a teenager, I’d marched against apartheid, raised funds for the South African opposition and stood in the cold at Trafalgar Square to support the Non-Stop Picket outside the South African Embassy.

As some students take part in so-called “Israeli Apartheid Week”, it sadly seems worth remembering exactly what it was so many of us were campaigning against.

Apartheid was a systematic and strictly enforced system of racial segregation. It divided people into racial groups and then kept them apart. Black people were not even allowed to vote, still less stand for election. Universities, hospitals, places of work and public services were all segregated on the basis of race. People of different races were prevented from marrying each other or living together. Political opposition was prevented by law. The ANC and the South African Communist Party which supported it were banned for decades.

Compare that with the multi-ethnic democracy that is Israel. Every citizen is guaranteed equal rights under the law, all citizens have freedom of movement, assembly and speech. They can work where they want and they can have a relationship with and marry whoever they want.

In Israel, the judiciary counters discrimination. In South Africa, it enforced it.

There is free speech and assembly for all. Critics of Israel and of Zionism form political organisations and campaigns.

All Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel are guaranteed equal rights under the Basic Laws.  Arabic is an official language and there is widespread Arabic media.

All citizens of Israel vote on an equal basis and turnout for recent municipal elections exceeded 70 per cent in most Arab areas.

There are 18 Arab MKs (MPs) in the current Knesset and they are among the government’s harshest critics. There are Arab MKs representing the Likud, Meretz, Zionist Union, Kulanu, and Yisrael Beitanu parties, as well, of course, the Joint Arab List – the third largest faction in the Israeli Parliament.

Visit the Knesset and you will see one of the most diverse and disputatious Parliaments in the world with members of every shade of opinion from the far left to the very right wing. You’ll see the only legal Communist Party in the whole of the Middle East.

Arabs have served in the Cabinet, in the civil service and on the Supreme Court. It was an Israeli Arab judge, George Karra, who sent former President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, to jail for seven years. Can you imagine that in apartheid South Africa or, for that matter, anywhere in the Middle East?

Universities, hospitals, public services, the civil service, the army and police are all integrated. There are Israeli Muslim ambassadors and diplomats and Arabs serve as the heads of hospital departments, university professors, as senior police and army officers.

None of that could ever have happened in Apartheid South Africa, but of course that doesn’t mean things are perfect in Israel. There’s no denying there are gaps between the majority and minority groups, just as there are in other societies, including our own, but the government is trying to close them. Its new five-year Arab economic development plan will allocate budgets to Arab citizens according to their proportion in the overall population and was hailed by Jewish-Arab NGOs promoting equality, such as Sikkuy, as an “historic” step.

The comparison between democratic Israel and apartheid South Africa isn’t just grotesquely untrue, it is also a dangerous barrier to the prospects for peace. You don’t have to take my word for it: even South Africans who are fiercely critical of Israel, like Judge Richard Goldstone, who led the UN commission of inquiry into the 2008-9 Gaza war, reject the analogy. As Goldstone said: “The charge that Israel is an apartheid state is a false and malicious one that precludes, rather than promotes, peace and harmony”.

The claim that Israel is a racist, apartheid state is designed to isolate the country and encourage boycotts and sanctions campaigns which do huge damage to the prospects for peace because they drive people apart and reduce the prospects of engagement, negotiation and compromise which is the only way this conflict will be solved.

I’m the first to say that the conditions that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live in are difficult and, in some cases, desperate. They are the victims of the failure over the last 25 years to fully realise the hopes raised by the Oslo peace process. Israel bears a responsibility for that failure, but so, too, does the leadership of the Palestinian Authority which has turned down peace initiatives in 2000 and 2008 which would have led to the creation of a Palestinian state. Nor should we forget the suffering of the people of Gaza under the oppressive rule of Hamas. Indeed, the brutal suppression of the human rights of women, religious minorities and gay men and women is, perhaps, the closest parallel with pre-1994 South Africa.

I desperately want to see a Palestinian state established as part of a two-state solution to this conflict. I have believed in that and campaigned for it for over 30 years. I want Britain to do everything it can to advance a peaceful and just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based upon security, peace and justice for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

The only way to solve this conflict is through talking and negotiation and through supporting engagement between Israelis and Palestinians, instead of measures like boycotts and sanctions or “Israeli-apartheid” campaigns which just drive the two sides further and further apart.

I am worried that boycotts and sanctions would drive people further apart, when what Britain must do is bring people together, promote dialogue and build trust between the two peoples.

The best contribution Britain can make to the peace process is to develop closer links with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, promote economic development, trade and investment in the West Bank, help reduce violence and terror and promote reconstruction and demilitarisation in Gaza.

There are hundreds of NGOs, charities and campaigns like Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow (MEET) and Cherish which are bringing Israelis and Palestinians together and developing the coexistence and engagement on which two states can be built.

And, second, we should be working with other countries in the region to strengthen regional cooperation and end the Israeli-Arab conflict.

That’s why boycotts, disinvestment and talk of “apartheid” have no place in the campaign for peace in the region.

Ian Austin is MP for Dudley North

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