Business Day

11 September 2013

WITH the “Arab Spring” threatening to unravel following the military coup in Egypt and the use of chemical weapons in Syria, there is a danger of the perennially combustible Middle East exploding into a regional war just when the prospect of a democratic evolution among Arab states was beginning to look possible.

Such an eruption would again disrupt the global economy, as it did after George Bush’s ill-considered invasion of Iraq in response to al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on the US. Even though the Middle East is no longer quite so vital to global oil supplies as it was then, thanks to the development of shale-gas technology and the discovery of new offshore supplies in the US and elsewhere, it is still a major energy producer.

More than that, the conflicts could easily expand into a religious war, inflaming sectarian passions across the region, with all manner of unpredictable consequences further afield.

It is ironic that this should be happening at a time when the US is making what Secretary of State John Kerry calls a last-ditch effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. It is an effort that few observers of Middle East affairs have given much chance of success, but which present events now surely render stillborn.

It is ironic, too, that this collapse of even the prospect of a resumption of peace talks should coincide with the publication of a book here in South Africa that might otherwise — just possibly — have had an effect on that debate.

I am referring to the recent launch at the Apartheid Museum of Why Israel?, a book by Firoz Osman and Suraya Dadoo of the Media Review Network, a South African organisation that can best be described as a counter to the powerful global network of pro-Israeli organisations represented in this country by the South African Zionist Foundation.

The Latin phrase “audi alterem partem“, or “hear the other side”, was the most fundamental principle of ancient Roman justice and has been the central pillar of Western judicial systems ever since. It should be for journalism, too. But despite high-sounding mission statements and codes of ethics, Western journalism often falls short of its own self-proclaimed idealism, especially when covering conflicts with cultures other than its own. Then the disparaging view of “the other” prevails and the “other’s” side of the conflict is not heard, or at least not adequately heard.

Nowhere is this more evident than in reportage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most of which reaches the South African media from Western, particularly US-based, news agencies. They are persistently coloured in accordance with the Israeli perspective of the conflict, which in turn is driven by the powerful Israeli propaganda lobbies. Anyone who ventures to offer a Palestinian perspective is promptly smeared as an “anti-Semite” — or, even more odiously, as a “self-hating Jew” should he or she happen to be of the Jewish faith, as many critics are.

Thus is free debate on the issue stifled and US diplomacy in the region rendered hopelessly lopsided.

That is what makes publication of this book so important. For it presents the Palestinian perspective on this long-running and terribly important conflict in a clear and precise manner. I would not describe the book as “objective,” for that is a misleading word stripped of a particular perspective, but it does present the Palestinian point of view in a carefully documented manner with every source meticulously provided. It does indeed present “the other side” that is not adequately heard.

Moreover, it is presented from a specifically South African standpoint. The authors, and the organisation they represent, are people who fell on the wrong side of the colour line during apartheid, and their purpose here is to reveal the similarities between that time in our country and today’s Israel.

It is a highly sensitive issue for the pro-Israeli lobby, of course, for apartheid was declared a crime against humanity. For that label to become attached to Israel would be a serious blow to its image in the world and its ability to withstand increasing calls for boycott and disinvestment strategies. So it is being furiously resisted. But Why Israel? makes a compelling case for its validity.

Israelis are quite right when they argue that there are no segregated benches in Israeli parks or Jews-only bathing beaches, but there is much else that strikes any South African over the age of 25 as familiar. These range from our Land Act and the ethnic cleansing that marked the early Zionist settlement, to the Group Areas Act and the demarcating of living areas for Arab-Israelis — and, most striking of all, the herding of the Palestinian majority into the equivalent of noncontiguous Bantustans that can never be viable, independent states and are in effect under Israeli military control.

Much is routinely made in the Western media that Hamas, the most radical of the Palestinian movements, which won the community’s last election in 2007 but failed to gain Western recognition, contains a clause in its charter declining to recognise Israel’s right to exist. But none record — as this book now does — that the charter of the Likud Party, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, states: “The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state.” In other words, there is no recognition of the right of a Palestinian state to exist. Only a Bantustan.

Nor is there ever reference to the vision of Theodore Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, of what should become of the Palestinians. As he wrote in his diaries: “We shall try to spirit the penniless (Palestinian) population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in Palestine…. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.”

Getting back to the unravelling of the “Arab Spring”, what is clear is that it will seriously weaken the Arab world’s support for the Palestinian cause — and there is not much other to be found anywhere.

Syria is shattered: even if dictator Bashar al-Assad manages to survive his prolonged rebellion, he will never be able to put Syria together again.

Egypt is in turmoil following the military coup and its wholesale imprisonment of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sectarian passions are also showing signs of flaring up anew in Tunisia, Lebanon and Iraq. Behind all this lurk the deep divisions between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

All of this leaves the way open for Israel to continue establishing its settlements in the West Bank, leaving the prospect of the two-state settlement the West has so long called for utterly impossible.

The way will be open for Israel to complete its own long-envisioned programme of herding all Palestinians into tiny, unfree, apartheid Bantustans and establishing Likud’s vision of expanding Israel to include the whole of the Holy Land.

Is the world really prepared to accept that? Will apartheid be deemed okay after all?

 Allister Sparks is a veteran writer, journalist ,political commentator and  former editor of the Rand Daily Mail.

Review also appeared in The Cape Times & The Mercury.