Why is there no Palestinian Nelson Mandela?

Nelson Mandela stands high in the pantheon of modern figures who have played a significant role on the stage of history on behalf of justice and equality such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. His call for mutual respect and trust between peoples, his belief in a humanity that is one, his emphasis of racial tolerance, his condemnation of violence and violations of human rights, and his belief in negotiation as the way to settle contentious issues all have given him, a democratic socialist with a regal style, a moral stature admired by all.

In view of his courageous effort to end the apartheid regime of South Africa, he was acclaimed not only by official bodies such as the UN General Assembly by also by the general public, as witnessed by the continual daily crowds protesting his arrest for many years outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square in London while calling for his release and opposing the apartheid regime.

Nelson Mandela is presently in his home in Johannesburg, receiving intensive care. Much of his critical illness stemmed from the tuberculosis he contracted while in prison, where he was held from 1963 until February 11, 1990, when he was released unconditionally. He was arrested in 1962 and convicted on charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. He was president of the African National Congress (ANC), 1991-97, and president of South Africa from May 1994 to June 1999.

Throughout his career, Mandela called for racial tolerance and negotiation of contentious issues, and when president of the country called for national conciliation. On behalf of the ANC, he organized demonstrations and strikes. But as a self-confessed disciple of Mahatma Gandhi his approach against injustice was nonviolent resistance. This approach was manifested in the days of turbulence following the assassination on April 10, 1993 in a suburb of Boksburg of Chris Hani, head of the Communist party of South Africa and chief of staff of the armed wing of ANC by a Polish immigrant, a member of a white supremacy party with neo-Nazi affinities, and a person who had been assisted by a senior Conservative Afrikaner member of parliament who was opposed to the dismantling of the apartheid being introduced by the leader F.W. de Klerk.

Acute tensions might have erupted into violence at Hani's funeral in Soweto, the symbolic black capital of South Africa, on April 19, 1993. Nelson Mandela rose to the occasion and acted to calm the nation. Though he was not yet president, he gave a presidential speech on television on April 13, 1993 advocating moderation and conciliation. In stark fashion he said, "Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being... Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for, the freedom of all of us."

This was a crucial moment of truth. Hani had been an advocate of violence against the apartheid regime and had organized guerrilla operations in South Africa. However, he changed his mind in 1990 and then sought a peaceful solution through negotiation with the regime. A meaningful choice had to be made. The real struggle was not between the country's blacks and whites but between those adhering to hopes of reaching a political settlement and those on both sides continuing to reject a peaceful solution.

The parallel with the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is relevant in the division between those favoring negotiation and those who do not. The crucial present factor is that there is no Palestinian leader with the stature, let alone the principles, of Mandela, one courageous enough to call for a peaceful solution of the conflict without preconditions, and to argue for conciliation with the Jewish state.

As president of South Africa, Mandela attempted through overtures to the white elites of his country to establish a "rainbow nation." One of the significant gestures was the appointment of Klerk, his old adversary, as first deputy president.

Mandela often spoke of his warm relationship with South African Jews and his friendship with them at college and law school, and the political help given by people such as Helen Suzman in the struggle against apartheid. Indeed, although a small minority in the country, Jews played a considerable role in opposition to the regime; in the Treason Trial, 1956-61, 13 Jews were fellow defendants with Mandela. Jews continued to play a part in the nation-building and reconstruction of South Africa after the end of apartheid.

Mandela stated that Jews were more broadminded than most whites on race and politics, perhaps because they themselves had historically been victims of prejudice.

In a speech in October 1999 Mandela declared the "I owe a debt of honor to the Jews, even if sometimes I have made restrained remarks about Israel." It is interesting to compare those remarks with those by diehard critics of Israel.

Speaking on December 4, 1997 in Pretoria at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, a day that had been initiated by the United Nations in 1977, Mandela expressed his solidarity with the people of Palestine and called for Palestinian self-determination and statehood. This was uttered in the context of support for the universal pursuit of human fraternity and equality, irrespective of race or religion and without discrimination. If freedom was incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians, Mandela argued that it was also incomplete without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan, and other places.

Mandela's argument is relevant in three ways. It means that the Dutch-Afrikaan policy of apartheid, a policy systematically grounded on legal racism and segregation of people of different races, was in no way similar to the society and politics of Israel, whose policies were never based on racial superiority. To call Israel an apartheid state was an unfair and inaccurate slander that is designed to retard rather than to advance peace negotiations.
Secondly, though he was in favor of a Palestinian state, Mandela insisted it be obtained through peace negotiations. And above all, he reiterated on a number of occasions Israel's right to exist with secure borders. In particular, in a speech in October 1999 he said, "I cannot conceive of Israel's withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel with secure borders."

In a world where Israel Apartheid week is hosted in cities and on university campuses, where the call for a crusade to boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel has been voiced, and where Palestinian textbooks fan the flames of hatred and violent revenge against Israel, the lack of a Palestinian Mandela willing to lead his forces in peace negotiations with the State of Israel is a dramatic denial of the moral purpose of the great South African who should be a role model.

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