Perhaps an intrepid researcher will one day go through the many Internet pages that make assertions pro and con on the question of whether Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories can properly be assessed as “apartheid.” Then we may be in a position to tell whether the first polemicist to sling the term in the context of the West Bank was a foreigner, a Palestinian, or, just possibly, an Israeli. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t Jimmy Carter, whose recent book, with its unpunctuated title Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, has been high on the best-seller lists for nearly three months despite—maybe, in part, because of—the wrath his use of the term has provoked among Israel’s supporters. Not all of them have been as restrained as Abe Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, who complains of Carter’s “bias” but avoids tossing the epithet “anti-Semite” at the president who, nearly three decades ago, brokered the Camp David accord, which did more to secure Israel’s place and legitimacy in the region than all the diplomacy that preceded or followed it.
The branding of Israel as an “apartheid state” was one of the themes of resolutions presented at the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, under United Nations auspices in 2001 (and one of the reasons Secretary of State Colin Powell cited for calling the American delegation home). Yet at about the same time, the term “apartheid” began to surface in discussions in what might broadly be called the Israeli peace camp as a plausible if somewhat contentious way of characterizing the occupation of the territories or the prospects of the Jewish settlements there; as a benchmark, a description of what the occupation already was or might become. Five years ago, writing in Haaretz, Israel’s most respected newspaper, Michael Ben Yair used the A-word in describing the occupation that he said began on “the seventh day” of the Six-Day War. Ben Yair, the attorney general in the governments of Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres in the 1990s, is no fringe figure. “Passionately desiring to keep the occupied territories,” he wrote,
we developed two judicial systems: one—progressive, liberal—in Israel; and the other—cruel, injurious—in the occupied territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture.
Two years later, the political commentator and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti used the word prospectively. Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza and build a security wall along—and beyond—the western frontier of the West Bank was tantamount, he argued, to making Israel “a binational state based on apartheid.” It meant, he said, “the imprisonment of some 3 million Palestinians in bantustans.”
In recent weeks, largely in response to the controversy in this country over the Carter book, the word “apartheid” has popped up in Israel’s interminable security discussion more often there than it normally does in print. Thus we find Uri Avnery, a veteran of the peace movement, detecting “a strong odor of…
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