Before Robert Mugabe was the ancient, clownish dictator who wrecked Zimbabwe, he was a popular guerrilla leader who led the successful fight against white rule in Rhodesia. For 14 years Mugabe's ZANU and Jacob Nkomo's ZAPU fought the white government led by Ian Smith (and each other), eventually leading to universal suffrage and full democracy — which did not last, of course.
It is the fate of Zimbabwe that the people of Israel should remember, as random stabbings of Israelis have sparked a spiral of government reprisals and counter-reprisals. Violence is the inevitable result of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. And while Israel may be able to maintain a grip on power for many years to come, without a true settlement it will lose eventually, quite possibly laying waste to everything it has built.
The problem for Israel is that, if an insurgency were to arise, the brutal tactics necessary to defeat it would turn the country into an international pariah state and lead to eventual economic devastation. As Smith discovered after years of grinding bush war, overwhelming military superiority cannot deliver permanent victory against guerrilla or terror tactics. Instead, massive military expenditures slowly bleed the state, while constant violence leads to large-scale emigration, particularly of wealthier people whose tax money is needed to finance the war.
Going for a full-blown police state might be somewhat more tactically effective (and what Israel has effectively chosen when it comes to the occupied territories), but this will undermine the international support that Israel must have to survive in the long term. These days, no nation can survive completely cut off from international markets and trade — especially not a small one.
Israel continues to enjoy the extensive support of the United States, most critically in the form of a U.N. Security Council veto. But this cannot be counted on forever. The longer Israel continues the occupation, the weaker the political foundation of this support. Increasingly extremist Israeli officials have deeply damaged the U.S.-Israel relationship of late — witness Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doing his utmost to make it a partisan issue, reserved for conservative Republicans, during his failed effort to destroy the nuclear deal with Iran. And Israel is already widely disliked across most of the rest of the world.
Nelson Mandela himself once put this logic to Constand Viljoen, a conservative Afrikaner military leader:
Militarily we cannot fight you; we cannot win. If, however, you do go to war, you assuredly will not win either, not in the long run. Because, one, the international community will be totally behind us. And, two, we are too many, and you cannot kill us all. So then, what kind of life will there be for your people in this country? My people will go to the bush, the international pressure on you will be enormous, and this country will become a living hell for all of us. [Playing the Enemy]
He could point right over the border for direct evidence of this proposition. It was the Zimbabwe example (in addition to Mandela's masterful leadership) that persuaded white South Africans to effectively vote themselves out of power in 1992. It was an act of real honor and nobility, however selfish or fearful the motivation.
Of course, Rhodesia circa 1970 is not identical to Israel today. Most importantly, Jewish Israelis are not a tiny minority, and some 20 percent of Israelis are Arabs with citizenship rights (suggestions from former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that many of them be stripped of citizenship notwithstanding). Religion also plays a much larger role. Aside from the obvious influence of Judaism and Islam, Israeli fringe groups have recently suggested opening the Temple Mount to Jews, or even taking down the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam, and building a Third Temple in its place. This appears to be the proximate motive for the spate of stabbings. (One should note that a few Israeli Jews have responded in kind.)
But the very core of the situation is basically the same. There are roughly equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians in the areas Israel controls — a bit over six million of each. Of those, 4.6 million live under Israeli occupation — effectively governed and controlled by a state over which they have no democratic influence. The Palestinian Authority is a captured joke of a government, and the daily injustice in the old Bantustans is comparable if not greater than that endured in the West Bank and Gaza. As Josh Marshall argues:
Of course, it's wrong and evil in all cases to randomly pick out innocent civilians on the street and stab them. It's not justified by the occupation. It can't be justified by anything. I think most of us know this. But it is just as obvious that it is unwise to pretend that all of this happens in a vacuum. The two peoples simply cannot live together with one side dominating the other… [T]his is the price — either paid in one big payment or in installments on layaway over time — of Israel's and most of the United States' collective denial about the big status quo of the occupation and the unrealistic belief that it can just be perpetuated over time. [Talking Points Memo]
But Israel should not expect a Mandela to pop out of the rubble in Gaza to save the country from itself. Statistically speaking, a Mugabe is far more likely.