The last weeks have seen our biggest Sunday newspaper devote many pages to the bitter dispute between the friends and enemies of Israel and this was followed by an attack by BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions – an ultra-anti-Israeli group) on Jewish candidates for membership of the Constitutional Court.
We all know the moves in this game – bitter attacks on Israel as an allegedly apartheid and racist state, an equally frantic defence of Israel by its supporters and, quite often, an attempt to smear anyone Jewish as an implicit Zionist.
BDS is a nasty organisation, quite rightly banned in many countries for its effectively anti-semitic propaganda. But why does South Africa feature these regular Punch and Judy shows over Israel/Palestine? Why the fascination with this old quarrel?
Under the Mbeki presidency huge amounts of cabinet time were devoted to intensive discussion of this issue with the apparent objective of a South African intervention to “solve” this problem. This was always ludicrous: the ANC was so publicly committed to the Palestinian side that there was never the slightest chance that Israel would view South Africa as having impartial standing. And Israel, in any case, has long ceased to want or need any kind of third-party adjudication.
The answer would seem to lie in a nostalgia for the glory days of the struggle. With South Africa liberated, ANC eyes fastened on Israel as another Western imposition in the Third World and the idea was that the anti-apartheid crusade could be re-started in order to “liberate” (i.e. destroy) Israel. BDS has simply built on this idea, trying to re-focus all the old anti-apartheid tactics against Israel.
There is not the slightest chance that this will succeed. No country of any economic significance operates boycotts, sanctions or disinvestment against Israel. Unlike the South African case there is no Third World or Communist bloc trying to isolate it. Russia and China are both happy to have a full range of economic relations with Israel. BDS often stoops to petty campaigns with an anti-Semitic flavour because its stated objectives are quite beyond its reach.
The realpolitik of the situation is this. When Israel declared independence in 1948 there were only 805,000 Jews there and they were immediately attacked by five Arab armies – Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Transjordan and Lebanon. The Israelis had only 35,000 men under arms and the Egyptian army alone numbered 40,000. The Arabs had planes and tanks, the Israelis had none of either and also lacked heavy machine guns, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. The Arabs and Western intelligence services all thought it would be a walkover but after ten months of bitter fighting, Israel had won.
After that there was no looking back and in the next three wars (1956, 1967 and 1973) the Israelis were much better organized and well-armed. They won all three, after which Egypt effectively capitulated, recognized Israel and made peace with it. Today Israel’s armed forces are so formidable that further Arab attacks on it are pretty well inconceivable. Only Iran still poses a threat. It is an open secret that Israel has nuclear weapons and will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining them.
Within the Middle East Israel is now clearly the dominant power. There are now over 9 million Israelis. Israel has few natural resources but, starting from almost nothing by 2019 its GDP had risen to $404 billion, making it the 33rd biggest economy in the world (having passed South Africa which was then 38th). Its economy is growing at a fairly steady 3.5% a year. Latterly it has discovered and begun to exploit sub-sea reserves of oil and gas. Unsurprisingly, many Africans are trying to emigrate to Israel.
Israel has moved steadily upwards through the ranks of poor and middle income countries and is today a rich country with per capita income (in 2019) of $43,592, roughly equal with Britain, France and Japan. (At that date South Africa’s per capita income was $6,001.) Israel’s high-tech industries are the envy of the world and as a high-tech incubator Israel ranks probably second only to Silicon Valley. Its universities are not only by far the best in the Middle East but are comparable in standard with good European universities. The Israel intelligentsia, though small, is extremely talented and produces many fine writers, musicians, scientists and social scientists.
Israel’s prominence in high tech has a number of effects. First, of course, it guarantees that its military lead over its neighbours will only increase and it gives it multiple possibilities of slowing or even preventing Iranian nuclear development. Second, it has been true for some time that when the Israelis take delivery of advanced American military hardware, they re-tool and re-engineer it, adding various sophisticated touches. This is true even of their hyper-modern F-35s, and it guarantees Israeli military autonomy. And thirdly, of course, every other major country is keen to gain access to Israeli high tech, making them all keen to trade with and invest in Israel.
The Middle East is a very bad neighbourhood: currently Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya are pretty much in ruins and Lebanon is close to it. None of this is Israel’s doing. So while some foreign NGOs love bashing Israel, its actual neighbours are increasingly keen to be its friends. Currently Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Sudan, Morocco and Bahrain recognise and trade with Israel but clearly others will follow.
Of course, all these states insist that they remain highly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause but the fact that they have made their peace with Israel despite increasing Israeli encroachment on the West Bank tells its own story. As the UAE said when it made peace with Israel, it had supported the Palestinians loyally for fifty years but now it must look to its own national interest.
The Palestinian cause has reached its lowest ebb. Looking back, one realises that at various points the Palestinians turned down Israeli offers which it would have been wiser to accept. Those who have cheered on Hezbollah or Hamas need to realise that this has merely helped the Israeli cause for the rest of the world can hardly expect Israel to compromise with terrorist organizations whose publicly stated aim is the destruction of Israel.
Thus the prominence of these extreme groups insulates Israel from any serious international pressure to compromise. If Hamas and Hezbollah did not exist, Israel would want to invent them.
Finally, fracking has had an immense effect. Historically, the US had to balance its support for Israel against its need for Arab oil. Now that fracking has made America energy-independent it can – as Trump showed – opt for all-out support of Israel without serious penalty.
All of these factors have changed the balance and it is still changing. Before long we will doubtless see strong economic ties developing between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. This will exert a gravitational pull on Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Israeli-Moroccan ties will entice Mauretania and Tunisia to follow suit. At every stage the Palestinians will cry treason, but the world will move on. In effect the war is over and Israel has won.
All of which means that BDS is now a very old-fashioned organization, still trying to fight for the Palestinian cause in a way which takes no account of this rapidly changing balance. It can harass and hector Jewish people in the diaspora – thoroughly unpleasant and disreputable behaviour - but it gains no converts to its cause in that way and it has no effect at all on Israel or the Middle East in general. Quite clearly fewer and fewer Arab states are willing to listen to it. The fact that the ANC supports BDS merely shows how out of touch the ANC is.
This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.