By Khaled Diab
Although I wish there were a Palestinian Mandela, I suspect that Israel-Palestine is not ready for someone like him… not yet, at least.
Thursday 12 December 2013
Since the passing away of Nelson Mandela, eulogies glorifying the great man have been circulating around the globe – some heartfelt, others opportunistic; some genuine, others hypocritical.
I will not bore the reader by adding my own longwinded homage to the cacophony of tributes already out there. Suffice it to say that, despite his imperfections, Nelson Mandela was one of the few leaders – perhaps the only – in the 20th century who succeeded both as a revolutionary and as a statesman.
My intention here is to examine Mandela’s legacy in the Israeli-Palestinian context and whether the South African model he helped pioneer could help lead Palestinians and Israelis to the Promised Land of peace.
“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world,” Mandela said on the 20th anniversary of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in 1997.
“And from within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours,” Marwan Barghouthi, the imprisoned Palestinian leader who has often been described as the “Palestinian Mandela”, wrote in a tribute, reflecting the deep sense of mourning many Palestinians feel.
“The tiny cell and the hours of forced labour, the solitude and the darkness, did not prevent you from seeing the horizon and sharing your vision,” Barghouti wrote from his own cell in Israel’s Hadarim prison. “Your country has become a lighthouse and we, as Palestinians, are setting sails to reach its shores.”
But one reason the Palestinians have not reached this promised shore is because they have not had a leader of Madiba’s stature and vision, many argue. “The Palestinians needed a Mandela but they got Arafat,” reflected an Israeli I know, echoing a common sentiment in Israel.
While it is true that the Palestinian cause could have used someone of Nelson Mandela’s humanity and vision, what this view overlooks is that the Israelis have also been seriously short-changed by their leadership. Yes, the Palestinians have not had their Mandela but, likewise, an Israeli FW de Klerk has yet to emerge, with the nearest Israel has come to this being Yitzhak Rabin.
Although de Klerk is largely overlooked today, it is, in my view, no exaggeration to say that without his “verligte” (“enlightened”) contribution, Mandela, who nevertheless deserves the greater credit, may have failed in his mission to dismantle South African Apartheid.
After all, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative for most of his political career, de Klerk called for a non-racist South Africa, lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), released Mandela from prison and managed a surprisingly smooth transition to democracy. This would have been unthinkable had his predecessor PW Botha, who campaigned for a “No” vote in de Klerk’s 1992 referendum on ending Apartheid, not been forced into retirement following a stroke.
But what if Mandela had been a Palestinian and what if he had found his Israeli de Klerk, could he and would he have succeeded where Arafat and Rabin, not to mention the rest of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, failed?
Although I would like to think so and it is tempting to believe that what Palestinians and Israelis lack is a saviour, there are certain structural problems in the Israeli-Palestinian context which could defeat any would-be Mandela, the foremost being the narrow ethno-religious character of the conflict.
Even though Palestinians generally regard Mandela as a kindred spirit and his largely non-violent tactics resonate deeply, if Mandela were actually a Palestinian leader, I fear that his philosophy would face a groundswell of opposition. Despite undoubted support amongst pragmatists, some would label him as a “traitor” for demanding no more than equal civil rights within the existing Israeli framework, while others would dismiss him as a “normaliser” for his inevitable collaboration with Israelis.
Interestingly, whites, usually leftists and communists, were involved with the ANC from its earliest days. For instance, the Freedom Charter was compiled, based on demands from across the country, by architect-turned-political-activist Lionel Bernstein. At the Rivonia trial, which led to Mandela’s long incarceration, there were five white co-defendants who, like Bernstein, were also Jewish.
On the Israeli side, Mandela’s vision and mission would also likely prove unpalatable. Although Jews make up a far larger percentage of the population of the Israeli-controlled territories (former mandate Palestine and the Golan Heights) than whites did in South Africa, there is a widespread obsession with the so-called demographic time bomb.
This would most probably lead many Israelis to condemn a Palestinian Mandela as plotting to “destroy Israel by other means”, to rob Jews of their right to self-determination and even to lead to civil war and massacres the “day after”. Even though they shared a similar angst, white South Africans managed to overcome this existential fear and survived – even thrived – to tell the tale.
Although secular Palestinian nationalism and secular Zionism have both traditionally striven for democratic societies which involved the other side as equals of sorts, this was always in a shell where the other would be a minority and willing to live under a clear, dominant nationalist framework.
One reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not pursued a South African solution – and is instead stuck in the unworkable doldrums of a two-state solution in a land that is under 27,000 km2 compared to South Africa’s massive 1.2 million km2 – is simply a question of time.
The European colonisation of South Africa started much earlier, and had already reached fever pitch by the early 19th century. In contrast, large-scale Jewish immigration and settlement did not take off until after the British mandate began in Palestine following World War I.
As the situation increasingly grows to resemble the segregation of Apartheid South Africa, many, especially among the Palestinians but also a growing number of Israeli Jews, are convinced that the only way forward is a single, binational state.
However, huge confusion and differences remain over what form this should take and how to get there. I urge people to take inspiration from Nelson Mandela and the ANC and launch a civil rights struggle for equality for all, while also protecting the rights of every ethnic, national and religious group.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 December 2013.