Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Strange Bedfellows and Historical Judgment

Long time dcat/Rebunk reader Chris Pettit sent me this link from the Guardian about the links between apartheid South Africa and Israel. While you all know how I reject the Israel = Apartheid analogy, that is not to say that Israel does not have some things for which to answer with regard to its relationship with South Africa, especially in the 1980s when most of the rest of the world was finally and belatedy turning its back on the securocrats in Pretoria. Here is a somewhat edited version of what I wrote back to Chris:

You know how I feel about the Israel-Apartheid analogy, so I won't get into that element of this article, but the other main point that it seems to raise is one I never received a satisfactory answer about when I was in Israel -- namely, Israel's relationship with the apartheid regime. That is a matter of foreign policy, but one that Israel lives with uncomfortably if they recognize it at all -- When I asked about those ties in one of our briefings, one high-ranking military official heard my question and simply turned away from me and went to someone else's question, which told me all I needed to know. I would have disagreed, but I would have at least respected an answer that I suspect would be the accurate one: We were a beleaguered state, South Africa was willing to support us, the anti-apartheid movement was anti-Israel, and so realpolitik dictated that we utilize contacts with South Africa's regime. We realize now that it was a dangerous, maybe even wrong alliance, but keep in mind that the ANC made similarly awkward alliaces with Libya and Cuba because of their own self interest -- that is what countries (or aspiring liberation leaders) do.

Some further commentary: Unlike many, I am willing to accept the reasons why South Africa is friendlier to Cuba and Libya than I might prefer. From the vantage point of both the liberation movements and the current South African state, Libya and Cuba were on the right side of the most important issue that mattered to them -- supporting the struggle against a regime every bit as evil and wrong (worse, I'd argue) as Cuba and Libya, apartheid South Africa. It is easy to see a world where there is simply good and evil and all sides align neatly. But that is not the world in which we live. The United States sure enough propped up enough evil regimes in Africa alone (Mobutu Sese Seku, Come On Down!) and as I recall, we allied with Stalin, the paradigmatically evil figure of the twentieth century, for what we perceived rightly as a temporal but larger good. Furthermore, throughout the Cold War we were willing to have summits with the various Soviet leaders. Even Ronald Reagan met with the "Evil Empire." It would be perplexing and absurd to deny other peoples the right to make uncomfortable alliances for the issues that are every bit as profoundly important to them. But at the same time, that means that we must not beat the drum against Israel now for Israel's sins then. Israel did what it felt that it had to do for its survival in a hostile Middle East in the 1980s, and we certainly are allowed to judge them as historical actors. We are also entitled to expect honest answers to questions about past relationships, whether from our own leaders or Israel's with regard to their coziness with Pretoria. We can judge, but we need to judge fairly, realizing that the conclusions we draw might not be purely condemnatory or blindly celebratory, but rather ambivalent, because international relations are usually messier than we might want to acknowledge when we are being holier than thou.

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