Ultimately, as we now know, the combination of internal resistance and international isolation did force whites to abandon political apartheid and accept majority rule. However, it is important to note that the combined strength of the anti-apartheid movement never seriously threatened the physical integrity of the white regime.
Even after the massive township uprisings of 1985-86, the South African regime was secure. “So far there is no real physical threat to white power,” The Economist noted, “so far there is little threat to white lives. … The white state is mighty, and well-equipped. It has the capacity to repress the township revolts far more bloodily. The blacks have virtually no urban or rural guerrilla capacity, practically no guns, few safe havens within South Africa or without.”
This balance never changed, and a similar equation could be written today about the relative power of a massively-armed — and much more ruthless — Israeli state, and lightly armed Palestinian resistance factions.
What did change for South Africa, and what all the weapons in the world were not able to prevent, was the complete loss of legitimacy of the apartheid regime and its practices. Once this legitimacy was gone, whites lost the will to maintain a system that relied on repression and violence and rendered them international pariahs; they negotiated a way out and lived to tell the tale. It all happened much more quickly and with considerably less violence than even the most optimistic predictions of the time. But this outcome could not have been predicted based on what whites said they were willing to accept, and it would not have occurred had the ANC been guided by opinion polls rather than the democratic principles of the Freedom Charter.
Zionism — as many Israelis openly worry — is suffering a similar, terminal loss of legitimacy as Israel is ever more isolated as a result of its actions. Israel’s self-image as a liberal “Jewish and democratic state” is proving impossible to maintain against the reality of a militarized, ultra-nationalist Jewish sectarian settler-colony that must carry out frequent and escalating massacres of “enemy” civilians (Lebanon and Gaza 2006, Gaza 2009) in a losing effort to check the resistance of the region’s indigenous people. Zionism cannot bomb, kidnap, assassinate, expel, demolish, settle and lie its way to legitimacy and acceptance. [continued…]