Small business minister is the latest recruit to the ranks of thread-pullers that put hard-won settlement at risk

From the balcony of my temporary accommodation on a marina outside Tel Aviv last Monday, I witnessed the flyover of the latest additions to Israel’s air force, already by far the mightiest in this war-ravaged region. Israel is the first country outside the US to receive and operationalise the F35 Lockheed Martin fighter aircraft. My recent, inexpert view of the three thundering jets in close formation above me suggested their Hebrew nickname “Adir” (Mighty One) hardly does descriptive justice to the supersonic stealth fighters. That could also be an understatement for the hefty price tag, since each of these combat jets costs $110m.

But if Israel’s modern weaponry and skilled fighter pilots place this tiny country in the front rank of global military accomplishment, there is something deeply retrogressive in its sclerotic and unimaginative politics. That applies to both sides of the ragged divide, or green line, which separates this country from the territories on the West Bank of the Jordan River, of which in June, it will be in military occupation for an unbroken 50-year period.

In 1991, as a fresh-faced parliamentary backbencher from SA, I attended a political conference in Jerusalem. In an overcrowded field in world politics of regions receiving attention due to their unresolved conflicts over land and tribe back then, there were three standouts: SA, Israel-Palestine and Northern Ireland. For reasons of history and identity, this trio held the ring of international attention. The Yugoslavian civil war would soon add a bloody fourth contender for world interest.

It was by no means certain then that SA, in just three years, but with many lives lost and despite ferocious political stand-offs later, would conclude a successful constitutional negotiation and inaugurate a full-blown democratic order. The Good Friday agreement between the British and Irish governments and the warring political parties in Northern Ireland was, in 1991, still about seven years into the future, and there was little sign of rapprochement back then. Yugoslavia was only settled in 2001 after a 10-year civil war — the deadliest in Europe since 1945 — and its achievement was only made possible by breaking up the federation into its ethnic constituent states.

But in Israel at the time of my first conference there, the intractable and existential dispute between it and the dispossessed Palestinians seemed very far from settlement and while democracy’s attainment in SA was far from a sure bet, a “solution” in the Middle East was even more improbable.

But unbeknown to our conference, or the world, within two years secret talks would commence in Oslo, Norway, between Israel and its Palestinian adversaries. So, on September 13 1993, even before SA voted in its first democratic elections, then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in the presence of a beaming US president Bill Clinton, shook hands in the Rose Garden of the White House.

It was no more than a “declaration of principles” based on mutual recognition and many future steps to be concluded, but the optimism for a final settlement of the issue that had seen four full-scale wars between Israel and its neighbours seemed tantalisingly at hand.

It is now pretty much a footnote — albeit a golden one for the diminished peace camp here, and a dark period for the far stronger nationalist forces on both sides — as any talk these days of a “final settlement” seems naïve. The ancient distrusts, the divisions of decades, the contest over Israeli settlements deep in the heartland of an imagined Palestinian state, seem more alive here than any prospects for enduring peace or resolution.

Teaching students here recently at a local campus on the subject of democratic transitions and the case of SA inspired one of my more engaged Israeli class members to ask of the current impasse here: “But where is our DeKlerk and their Mandela?” Not a bad question in the circumstances of the outsize role leadership played in SA in the 1990s and the absence of any imaginative or transformational leaders on offer right now in either Israel or Palestine.

It is therefore very unclear what prompted US president Donald Trump to exude optimism for a settlement — perhaps he has an insight or knows the art of the deal. He declared last week to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that “we will get it done”.

Let’s see. Reading the local tea leaves and listening to the weary resignation to which even the most optimistic outliers here have succumbed, suggests the opposite.

There is another reason to highlight my current student’s plea for the magical appearance on both sides of the Jordan River of the equivalents of the last white and first back presidents of SA, FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. Beyond their personalities and the breadth or limits of their political reach at the time, Mandela and De Klerk represented two very different constituencies with very different loci of power.

Crucially, and in distinction to either the Israel-Palestine or Yugoslav conflicts, neither side was contemplating a divorce or the division of land at the time the constitutional discussions started in earnest in 1992. Further, unlike the tentative baby steps in the Oslo accords, which left the most intractable issues to a later stage, South Africans decided to go the whole hog, to settle the most contentious issues over power, land and state authority in one document, the 1996 Constitution.

Of course, that “final settlement” is technically capable of amendment. But it was a safety blanket carefully stitched together to provide reassurance to the contesting claims that had ravaged this country for more than three-and-a-half centuries. Or, to switch metaphors, our Constitution, at its best, was intended to build a bridge over a seemingly vast divide.

Both sides, and some in between, would settle their contesting claims around a settlement writer Ray Hartley has described as “a liberal democratic constitution with South African characteristics”. As he noted in his book of that era, Ragged Glory, and which any participant to those negotiations will confirm, the issue of property rights was front and centre. He confirms in his account that these were finally “entrenched”.

But today, facing the pull of populism and the need to place the blame for delivery failures elsewhere, there are in the heart of government many enthusiastic thread-pullers, or people in leadership positions determined — or careless as to consequence — to unravel the threads that were so carefully woven into the settlement over two decades ago.

No doubt illiberal, but certainly an heir of Mandela’s movement, the latest recruit to the ranks of the thread-pullers is Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu. According to News24, she has a definite view on how to channel her inner Jacob Zuma/Julius Malema: “SA must change its Constitution to allow the seizure of land for redistribution to black people without compensation because the country’s laws are hindering the transformation of the economy more than two decades after the end of apartheid.”

There is a lot to digest in that mouthful, and a lot of it is what is termed invented history. It is precisely the obstacle she identifies as the Constitution that allowed the end of apartheid to happen in the manner in which it did, constitutionally and by agreement.

If it is indeed now government policy that the Constitution is an impediment to transformation, then presumably no citizen or property holder should consider themselves bound by the settlement its pages reflect? The Constitution then, on this reading, was a ruse or a device to obtain power, a document — or key provisions — rather like our sovereign credit rating, to be junked later on? And so the very bridge into the future over the divides of the past is now to be demolished.

Israel’s current leaders have little faith in the niceties of constitutional settlements since they believe their interlocutors on the other side operate in bad faith. That is why they seek the solution behind a supersonic air shield.

SA’s constitutional fathers and mothers believed in the opposite proposition: that men and women of goodwill and with iron-clad reassurances could share the land and divide its power. It is a great pity that our current crop of leaders, or some of them at least, have just blown up the basis for our “final settlement”.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA.