US President Donald Trump’s recent declaration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has sparked international concern that a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is at risk. António Guterres, United Nations Secretary General, emphasized the severity of this situation when he warned: “in this moment of great anxiety, I want to make it clear: There is no alternative to the two-state solution. There is no Plan B.”
The international consensus in support of partition has gone largely unchallenged for decades. It is increasingly common to hear even US and Israeli politicians warn that if a two-state solution is not reached soon, Israel will have to be acknowledged as an apartheid state.
The problem with this argument is that the partition of Israel/Palestine into two-states would not represent the opposite of apartheid. Rather, it would be the very culmination of the same political vision that motivated the architects of apartheid in South Africa.
Partition as Apartheid
From 1948 on, the program of apartheid adopted by the National Party transformed an existing agenda of segregation into one of creeping partition. Pretoria’s long-term goal was to solidify South Africa as a white Christian nation side-by-side with independent African homelands, as part of a constellation or confederation of states. The development of tribal “homelands” (or Bantustans) and the forcible transfer of Black South Africans from urban areas was justified as providing for the “separate development” of necessarily separate peoples.
Pretoria declared to the world that apartheid was never about racial subjugation, but about finding a democratic solution to unique local problems. Introducing a democratic model based on one-person-one-vote or “majority rule” was considered political suicide for white South Africans, and so an alternative had to be found. This historical narrative is articulated in a 1985 pamphlet by the ruling National Party (later reproduced in the South Africa International):
Very early on [post 1948] two things had become clear: first, that it would not be possible to withhold political rights from black people in perpetuity; second, that a system of one man one vote in a single dispensation according to the British, American or European models would not work.
In response to this dilemma, Henrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid and eventual Prime Minister, “came up with a radically new concept”:
self-governing or even independent black states. [Homelands] could be revived to give the black people the opportunity to exercise their political rights in their own areas, so that black people could govern black people while leaving the remainder of South Africa in the hands of the whites, the coloureds (and later also the Indians).
The problem of democracy was solved: the promise of partition meant that it was considered entirely justifiable for Pretoria to deny Black South Africans political rights outside of their own designated (and artificial) homelands, where they belonged.
Critics of apartheid who were otherwise sympathetic towards South Africa also adopted this logic. There were many individuals who strongly condemned racial discrimination and segregation as immoral, yet were deeply suspicious of extending the democratic franchise. The South African industrialist Harry Oppenheimer embodied this position well, writing in 1978:
It is one thing for a foreign country to press South Africa to rid itself of an unjust system of government based on racial discrimination; it is quite another thing to seek to impose a simplistic system based on majority rule and one-man-one-vote as the only reasonable solution.
Even as the P.W. Botha government initiated a period of reform in the 1980s and began to move away from “petty apartheid,” the commitment to “grand apartheid” remained. The goal of partition allowed Pretoria to dismantle superficial forms of discrimination while entrenching the permanent segregation of peoples, and to speak in terms of democracy while rejecting the question of one-person-one-vote. Further, it offered the guarantee that South Africa would maintain dominant control over matters of resources and security in the region.
Separate Development in Palestine
Israel, like apartheid South Africa, is an ethnocratic state with the misfortune of ruling over an undesired population which it considers fundamentally foreign to the body public. Unlike in South Africa, however, the right-wing Zionist claim to the entire Land of Israel complicates any move towards partition under a two-state model. Nonetheless, the consensus is that Israelis and Palestinians do not mix—as Labor leader Avi Gabbay recently said, “I believe in separation.”
Every indication suggests that any Palestinian state—should it ever be a real option—will not be truly sovereign and viable, but will be remarkably similar to “independent” Bantustans under apartheid. Without an evacuation of major Israeli settlements, a Palestinian state will be nothing but a non-contiguous collection of islands surrounded by Israeli military checkpoints, in the image of Bophuthatswana. Prime Minister Netanyahu has insisted that Israel will never give up security control of the West Bank, nor allow Palestine to control its own borders.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett goes even further in describing his vision for a Palestinian state-minus, in which Bantustans are made permanent but their autonomy is increased:
The Palestinians will have political independence, hold their own elections, select their own leadership, run their own schools, maintain their own social services and issue their own building permits. They should govern themselves and run their day-to-day lives. Israel should not interfere.
The South African national liberation movements rejected partition from the start, insisting on a unitary democratic state; this is why the international community never recognized the Transkei or other “independent” Bantustans. In contrast, the acceptance of a two-state solution by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1988 has trapped national aspirations within a fraudulent peace process that nobody seems to have any confidence in, yet which drags on while Israel unilaterally changes the social and physical landscape of its occupied territories.
After three decades of disappointment and despair, and with the recent pro-Israel gestures from the Trump administration, perhaps things are beginning to change. In September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened that if a two-state solution should fail, Palestinians will have no other choice “but to continue the struggle and demand full, equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine.” This was echoed more recently by Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the PLO, who responded to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem by embracing a vision of a one-state for all of those who live in Israel and Palestine: “They’ve left us with no option … This is the reality. We live here. Our struggle should focus on one thing: equal rights.”