Injecting 'Apartheid' Into the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Will Make It Worse | Opinion

Last week, Human Rights Watch released a deeply-researched report entitled, "A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution." Unfortunately, far from helping resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report is likely to push the two sides further away from an already elusive conflict-ending solution. And in overstating its case with the use of the word "apartheid," the report buries its substantive analysis of Israeli occupation practices under a sensationalist title that will give people an excuse to dismiss important elements of the critique.

The two of us have spent the majority of our professional lives wrestling with the complexities and frustrations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including trying to bring about an end to the Israeli occupation through negotiations. That situation remains grim: After more than half a century, the occupation appears entrenched and the so-called peace process hopeless. As a result, HRW argues, the only solution is international pressure on Israel to force a change in its policy and end its occupation.

And it's on this proposed pathway to a solution that we couldn't disagree more. If history is any guide, the vaunted international community is neither willing nor able to redeem Palestine through sustained pressure. Moreover, in charging that "in certain areas" Israeli practices "are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution," the report will drive Israelis and Palestinians and their respective backers into their fighting corners. It will do nothing to improve the situation on the ground. It will infantilize Palestinians and Israelis and, rather than facilitate criticism of Israel, it will likely make it that much more difficult to bring about change in two of the constituencies that really matter: the Biden Administration and Israel.

The truth is, by charging Israel with "crimes against humanity," Human Rights Watch has debased the term, when measured against the genocides and mass killings, from the Holocaust to Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and Syria.

To be sure, the HRW report dives deeply into a significant number of serious issues related to Israeli occupation policies and practices. And the report is correct that in many instances, Israeli policy violates basic human rights and exacerbate tensions on the ground. HRW is also correct in emphasizing that Palestinian rights matter, and Israeli policies make it more difficult for Palestinians to assert those rights.

But to read the HRW report, one might think that occupation practices take place in a vacuum, and that Israeli security doesn't matter, or that Israeli proposals since the 1990s to break the negotiations deadlock don't matter.

This is false. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't a morality play pitting the forces of good against evil, the powerful against the powerless. Palestinian terrorism and violence have been a constant feature throughout Israel's history, starting in the pre-state period when the Arabs rejected Zionist aspirations and continuing until today.

Israel has also faced a wall of Arab state rejection until the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan. And while recent normalization agreements with Arab states on the periphery of the region help, they do nothing to diminish the threats to Israel from Iran and its Shia proxies in Iraq and Syria, and from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad on its borders.

Israeli Palestinian conflict
Israeli soldiers conduct a security operation in the village of Aqraba, east of Nablus in the occupied-West Bank, on May 3, 2021. JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images

It's this context that the report leaves out. And rather than mobilizing support for Israel to change its policies, the HRW report will undercut political efforts by an already weakened Israeli left to effect changes in Israeli policies.

After all, Israelis know their faults as well as anyone else, but they also know that they are not an apartheid state – far from it – and have not committed crimes against humanity. The report will thus gut the Israeli center, and drive critics of the occupation and critics of the HRW into opposite corners. Faced with an unjust onslaught of criticism that cuts to the very core of Israelis' perception of themselves and their state, they are likely to rally around their flag to defend it.

Palestinians have welcomed the HRW report as validation not only of what they assert are Israel's apartheid practices, but also as confirmation that only external pressure can redeem their national patrimony and rescue them from their misery. As understandable as this feeling may be, it won't contribute much to their own agency and independent action. Abbas's decision to postpone legislative elections and to blame this on Israel is a further blow in this regard. This decision will deprive young Palestinians especially from their desire and right to select new representatives and revitalize old institutions.

And for its part, the Biden Administration has already distanced itself from the report, stating bluntly, "It is not the view of this administration that Israel's actions constitute apartheid." Already making clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a top priority, the Administration has sent clear signals that reentry into the nuclear deal with Iran is its main Middle East priority. But if international pressure on Israel increases, the Administration will emerge as its staunchest defender.

Finally, the HRW report's notion that the international community should or will rise up to pressure Israel to change its policies, let alone relinquish the territories, doesn't square with reality, past or present. One need look no further than the Syria tragedy or the humanitarian disaster in Yemen or the ongoing civil war in Libya to see how weak and feckless the international responses have been. Far from becoming an international pariah, Israel now enjoys acceptance and recognition among governments in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe, more than at any time since its independence. And that acceptance has even come from the Arab regimes where nearly half the region's population lives.

While steering clear of directly comparing Israel to South Africa, the HRW report might have acknowledged one lesson from the South Africa experience worth identifying: External pressure helped end apartheid, but it wasn't the major driver that ended the regime; Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk were. Without these two, especially Mandela, apartheid would not have ended. And today, that kind of leadership is sorely lacking among Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel has a responsibility under international law to treat Palestinians with respect, to stop settlement activity, and to ensure the safety and the basic human rights of the Palestinian population. These are issues that must no longer be ignored by the Israeli government. And we readily admit to having no solution to the underlying problem of occupation or the absence of leadership on both sides.

But there's one thing about which we are very certain: If a solution to the problem of the much too promised land is to be found, the place to look first won't be abroad, or to the UN, the United States or NGOs, but much closer to home: in the hands of Palestinians and Israelis themselves.

Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel, is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University's School of Public and International Affairs.

Aaron David Miller is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic Administrations.

The views in this article are the writers' own.