The National
June 2, 2010 - 12:00am

Once Israel is done with its internal debate about whether it applied the wrong tactics in boarding the Mavi Marmara and killing civilians, it might do some soul-searching. Here, a history lesson would be helpful. States that keep a large group of those among them separate, and deny them equal treatment, rarely end up on the right side of history.

Israel has fought the analogy between its treatment of the Palestinians with apartheid-era South Africa. Its advocates deploy questionable legal arguments, overstate Israel’s democratic credentials and conflate the Palestinian quest for statehood with Islamic extremism. Still, this strategy has been effective in some corners and has also helped to convince many of Israel’s people of their moral integrity. But propaganda can only work for so long.

This is not too different from the Afrikaners who also thought that they were fighting a just cause. Indeed, there were those among them that imagined theirs was a fight for civilisation blessed by their religion. They also thought that they could outlast and out-manoeuvre their critics. They were wrong and so are the Israelis.

It was as late as 1981 when the then US president Ronald Reagan defended South Africa’s apartheid regime on the grounds that it was “a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals”. Sound familiar? It took several decades before an appeal to higher principles and international outrage forced South Africa’s racist regime to step down. Israel would do well to remember this.

The criticism from Europe after Israel’s attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla was more outspoken than usual. The leaders of emerging powers from Brazil to India came out in support of civil rights organisations and religious groups who have waged a non-violent struggle against Israel. Citizens took to the streets in protest against Israel’s behaviour in several capitals. Global opinion is clearly shifting.

The world may be watching but can the Israelis see their government’s actions through the world’s eyes? The outpouring of anger and condemnation from all corners of the globe should help Israelis to grapple with the moral abyss into which they have sunk. But given its record, Israel is unlikely to be so moved.

Only global leaders, in particular the US president Barack Obama, have the leverage necessary to call Israel on its blindness. He must make clear to Israel the cost of obstructing the peace process, and the price of the innocent lives taken by the Israelis. The US itself must realise that its efforts to defend Israel are an abject waste of political capital and, more importantly, of its moral authority.

Israel cannot delude itself that it can avoid international isolation indefinitely. No country ever has.


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