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The parallels of two historic transitions

Comparisons of change in South Africa and the Middle East mark progress but also difficulty of Israeli-Palestinian accommodation

ONE hears comparisons between the Arab-Israeli peace accord and South Africa's transition to democracy more frequently from Palestinians than Israelis.

And for good reason. ``The balance of forces in the two situations are very different,'' says political scientist Adrian Guelke, who heads the Department of International Studies at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University.

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``In South Africa, the balance clearly favors the black majority, while in the Palestine-Israeli situation, the balance clearly favors the Israeli-Jewish majority,'' says Mr. Guelke, an authority on comparing deeply divided societies in South Africa, northern Ireland, and the Middle East.

But comparisons for a visitor are inevitable. In both cases, a combination of internal resistance and international pressure forced the governments in power to take action, and they relied increasingly on military force to quash the aspirations of those seeking liberation.

``In the case of Israel, the subordinate community is much weaker, and it had to settle for far less,'' Guelke says. He points out that the intifadah (uprising) of the Palestinians had not come nearly as close as the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa in threatening state power. But in both cases, it was the internal resistance that changed the balance of forces and revived the sagging fortunes of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Both the white minority in South Africa and the Israelis finally accepted that neither side could win and opted for negotiated settlements involving compromises on both sides. The white minority in South Africa agreed to relinquish political power within the democratic framework of a five-year period of national-unity government.

Israel agreed to recognize the right of Palestine to exist in return for a phased process in which the Palestinians would be given the opportunity of limited self-rule.

``It is the best deal we could get ... under the circumstances,'' PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat told news reporters shortly after his arrival in the Gaza Strip on July 1.

Like South African President Nelson Mandela, Mr. Arafat has had to settle for only a slice of the cake. Thousands of Palestinians remain behind bars, Israeli settlers remain under military guard inside Gaza, and the PLO leader has no guarantees regarding the delivery of about $2.1 billion in international aid pledges.

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Arafat argues that his return symbolizes the victory of the Palestinian people in a long-standing international conspiracy to deny the right of Palestine to exist and lays the foundation for a Palestinian state.

But Arafat's critics cite the PLO chairman's autocratic and manipulative style of leadership, his relative lack of stature, and his heavy reliance on showmanship as factors mitigating against the transformation to a democratic culture.

He also lacks Mr. Mandela's legitimacy, because free and fair elections have not yet been held in Gaza and the West Bank.

Another vital disadvantage the PLO faces in leading the campaign for a separate Palestinian state is the lack of economic infrastructure and economic resources in Gaza and the West Bank.

``Whereas Mandela has ... all the resources of the state at his command, Arafat does not have a country - let alone an economy - and will be heavily reliant on foreign aid to meet the socioeconomic aspirations of his people,'' a Western diplomat says.

THE garbage-strewn and overcrowded refugee camps of dusty Gaza Strip are a stark reminder of the awesome challenge facing Arafat and his Palestinian Authority (PA).

Arafat's return to Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho in early July is the Palestinian equivalent of Mandela's release from prison in February 1990 - in the sense that these events symbolized the legalization of the liberation movements.

But some observers would argue that the comparison ends there because the goal of the Palestinian struggle is a separate Palestinian state, while the ANC's struggle in South Africa was for majority rule in an integrated and unitary state.

The Palestinian quest for self-rule appears headed for an acrimonious divorce rather than the awkward marriage that characterized the South African transition.

But many observers point to the high degree of economic and geographic interdependence of the two groups and the need to negotiate shared-capital status for Jerusalem or face an endless and potentially ruinous conflict over the holy city.

Even some Palestinian academics, like the PLO's Hannan Ashrawi, do not rule out some eventual form of cooperation - starting with Jerusalem.

On a July 4 visit to South Africa, Mrs. Ashrawi, who has declined to serve on Arafat's PA, was asked in a television interview whether the answer might not be some kind of Palestinian-Israeli federation.

``It is too soon to talk about federation,'' she said. ``There is a legacy of pain and a long history of conflict and distrust, and you can't wipe that away ... by signing an agreement,'' she said.

But Ashrawi acknowledged that sharing would have to come into play over Jerusalem, which is claimed as a capital by both Palestinians and Israelis.

Guelke says that he cannot envisage even an eventual marriage of the conflicting Israeli and Palestinian forces. ``Israel cannot be a Zionist state within a government of national unity.''

He says that those Israeli academics who believed that a ``divorce'' was impossible were pessimistic about the future and envisaged decades of conflict.

Those who believed a marriage was possible were more hopeful about the eventual outcome, he said.

Ironically, the prospect of a marriage was given a boost by Arafat's return.

His speeches were generally moderate and devoid of the militant rhetoric about a jihad (holy war) against Jerusalem and ambivalence about the accord - remarks he made to a group of Muslims in Johannesburg during his visit for Mandela's inauguration on May 10.

On his return to Gaza July 1, Arafat avoided references to thorny issues like the Israeli settlers and harped, instead, on more attainable objectives like the release of prisoners, the delivery of international aid pledges, and the sharing of Jerusalem.

Some Israeli officials welcomed Arafat's remarks, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appeared to go out of his way to use Arafat's return as a moment to shift Israeli public opinion behind the accord.

In the week before Arafat's return, Mr. Rabin acknowledged in principle Arafat's right to pray in Jerusalem, raised the prospect of Israeli settlers having to move eventually, and used the toughest rhetoric ever against the Israeli right.

``The radical right-wing in Israel is dancing on the blood of the victims of the radical Islamic murderers, trying to turn these victims into a lever against the peace agreement,'' Rabin said at a ruling Labor Party central committee meeting on July 3.

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