Nelson Mandela and the Israel-Palestine Conflict: Lessons, Messages and Misinterpretations

Nelson Mandela's death set off a rush by many in the world to search for lessons in his life, and none have been more eager to do so than Israelis and Palestinians trapped in their conflict.

The Importance of Balanced and Compassionate Leadership

The most obvious lesson he offers lies in the critical nature of leadership. After 27 years of imprisonment he emerged into a South Africa torn by violence as the black majority struggled for freedom against a ruling white minority. He quelled the anger among his own people and led them on the path of compromise and reconciliation. His courage and vision earned the respect and support of most whites, which allowed for the rise of a new united South Africa of democracy and non-racism.

A connected lesson is that he did not act alone. He could not have achieved what he did without the cooperation of the whites, who commanded the firepower, and whose leadership was therefore equally crucial. The last apartheid president, FW de Klerk, began on the right wing of his right-wing Afrikaner National Party; but he came to recognize that white rule could no longer be sustained and, in facing up to reality, urged his people to pursue a new road.

There was, too, another Afrikaner whose role is little remembered these days: General Constand Viljoen, the former head of the South African Defense Force. He brought together white right-wing groups in the Afrikaner Volksfront (Afrikaner People's Front). As the country headed toward its first democratic elections with a black majority government assured, he was said to have 50,000 to 60,000 army- trained white men ready to fight to preserve Afrikaner interests.

This evoked another period in South African history, the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, when Afrikaner citizen-soldiers, known as Boers, went on fighting the might of the British Empire, refusing to accept they had been defeated. Their people admired and honored them as bittereinders (bitter-enders), people who fought to the bitter end. Afrikaners who made peace with the British were described as hensoppers (hands-uppers), or those who surrendered.

As the election in April 1994 approached, South Africa was on a knifeedge. It was in grave danger of sliding into a racial civil war. However, only weeks before the elections, Viljoen changed direction, backed away from violence and opted for the ballot box, taking his people with him.

The lesson for Palestinians and Israelis could not be clearer: Leaders who are entering a no-win situation with immense suffering for all involved must acknowledge the situation and, for the greater good of their country and people, put their political existence on the line by persuading their followers to think radically anew.

There is, of course, much else to be learned from Mandela's leadership. His humanity and compassion, shown not only in grand gestures but in the way he reached out to ordinary people, "little" people. Among the many, many anecdotes is the one about the first rugby game between South Africa and England after the end of apartheid. Walking onto the field to greet the players, Mandela said to the English rugby union's chairman, "I hope I am going to meet the important people." Yes, of course, he was told, you are going to meet the players. "No," said Mandela. "I mean the important people. The ball boys."

His sense of humor time and again lightened the most serious of occasions. It was part of his gift for turning enemies into admirers and highlighted that at the essence of his being was respect for the other and willingness to talk and to listen.

Mandela's Legacy: Common Misinterpretations in Current Palestinian and Israeli Rhetoric

However, care is needed in seeking lessons from him. Understandably, whether Palestinians or Israelis, leftists or rightists, people, from willfulness perhaps, take from Mandela only the words or lessons they perceive best illustrate their beliefs or struggle; only too often are their choices based on incorrect knowledge about Mandela and the nature of the struggle for freedom in South Africa.

Among other things, violence is a much-misinterpreted issue. After decades of unsuccessfully pleading with whites to end discrimination and after the repeated failure of nonviolent protests, the African National Congress, the Communist Party and Mandela in 1961 took the fateful decision to turn to "armed resistance." Some hold this up as justifying any and all Palestinian violence against Israelis.

However, for Mandela and his comrades, it was a focused resistance, specifically aimed attacks targeting property and the military. The policy avoided targeting civilians, firstly because the ANC and its supporters were imbued with Mahatma Gandhi's belief in non-violent protest and secondly based on the fact that whites feared being murdered and swept into the sea by the black majority, making indiscriminate killings an adverse tool that would reinforce this fear and stiffen their opposition to yielding power to the blacks.

During the next three decades the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), adhered to this policy, with only a few exceptions. It proved to be an effective strategy as, when circumstances changed, fear was not a major factor in determining the white attitude towards the transitions to come.

Another issue is linked with this: the release of prisoners jailed for seeking to overthrow the apartheid government. Even though the government labeled Mandela a terrorist for propaganda purposes, the near-absence of terrorist acts greatly diminished public opposition to negotiations with him and his early release from life imprisonment as well as the release of many hundreds of members of the ANC and other movements. There was no evidence of the emotional trauma seen among Israelis, especially the families of victims of terror, with regards to the release of Palestinian prisoners, as the phrase has it, with blood on their hands. This also explains why it is inappropriate to call Marwan Barghouti, whatever his admired qualities, the Palestinian Nelson Mandela.

Mandela did support Palestinian liberation. Nevertheless, an important statement he made about his position on the issue is consistently misused by Mahmoud Abbas, Yossi Sarid and others. They quote him as saying: "But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians." He did indeed make this statement in December 1997 on Palestinian Solidarity Day, but he went on to say: "… without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world." Thus he spoke about Palestinian liberation in the context of freedom for all people. The omission of the second half of the sentence, whether done out of ignorance or for propaganda purposes, changes the meaning of the universal message he gave.

He was always straightforward about Israel: He totally opposed the occupation but he did not question Israel's existence or its right to security. Inevitably, mention of Mandela's name and his support for Palestinians leads to the claim that Israel was either the only country, or virtually the only state, which traded with apartheid South Africa. As an Israeli journalist has described it: "We were practically the only country that traded and supported and sold and bought and built and conducted experiments with…the department of evil."

This is a serious charge, especially when linked with Mandela, and needs to be more closely examined. In fact, it is entirely inaccurate. Apartheid trade statistics were increasingly kept secret as world sanctions built up. But the South African Institute for Race Relations estimates that in 1986, trade with Israel was about $214 million, with arms sales a further $272 million to $544 million, totaling between $480 million and $788 million.

In contrast, two-way trade with the United States at that time was about $3.32 billion - repeat, billion - with Japan at $3.27 billion and Britain $2.52 billion. South Africa's total exports were estimated at $19.14 billion and imports $12.2 billion.

Furthermore, there was a great deal of international hypocrisy about sanctions. The Soviet Union, for example, consistently condemned apartheid and supported sanctions - yet it cooperated closely and secretly with South Africa's De Beers corporation to ensure that the price of diamonds was maintained by monopoly. The money helped to suppress black workers and to keep apartheid in place. The role of Arab states is never mentioned. Yet without a steady inflow of their oil the apartheid state would not have survived. There was one period of about three weeks in the early 1980s when it is known that the South Africa government was in a panic because oil was running short. It cannot be said if other shortages occurred. If they did the information was suppressed; the media was prohibited from publishing any details about oil supplies without special permission. However, during all those years, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and other oil states provided all the oil that was needed. South Africa paid a premium of $20 to $30 a ton and made the oil producers and brokers even richer.

As for the arms South Africa is said to have bought from Israel, it was also able to procure some from Britain, France, Spain and the U.S. Similarly, it enjoyed nuclear cooperation with Israel, but also with France, the U.S. and West Germany.

Israel stands to be criticized for trading with apartheid South Africa, especially due to the overly friendly letters which its leaders, like then defense minister Shimon Peres, sent to the white rulers. But none of this justifies accusing Israel of being the world's only sinner. It was a small player in the world's league.

Mandela's thoughts and deeds are also abused from the right wing of the Jewish political spectrum: He came under fierce attack for supporting not only Yasser Arafat, but dictators like Castro and Gaddafi. His detractors never understood that during the years of struggle against apartheid these were the people who aided the ANC while Israel stood back. ANC fighters trained with Palestinians while Cuba, and Libya supplied arms and training. It was unlikely that Mandela thought well of the oppressive actions of Castro and Gaddafi. But when freedom came it would have been out of character for him to discard those who had stood with him for so long.

Nor, as some extremist Jews claim, was he "anti-Semitic to the core" and deserving of the abuse they have heaped him in Internet comments such as a "treacherous lying fraud." His entire life refutes this viciousness, both in terms of his humanity and in the many Jews who were close to him and supported him, from his personal friends and political comrades through to his lawyers.