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Michael Jansen: Comrades in arms
December 13, 2013
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One of the notable absentees from this past week’s memorial ceremonies for Nelson Mandela was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He said he would not attend because of the expense. He claimed the flight, the protection detail and accommodation would have cost $2 million. Palestinian president and PLO chairman, Mahmoud Abbas was on hand for the events celebrating Mandela’s life in spite of the expense to the cash-starved Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s expenditure could have been justified because Netanyahu, who is an internationally unpopular leader of a heavily criticised country, would have rubbed shoulders with dozens of world leaders at a memorial for the only global figure of political and moral stature in this age of mediocrities. 

However, Netanyahu also risked being connected in commentaries to the white supremacists overthrown by Mandela and his comrades in the Africa National Congress (ANC).

After all, Israel was a close ally of the apartheid regime before it fell. Mandela said of this connection, “The ANC, in common with the international community, was extremely unhappy about the military cooperation between the State of Israel and the apartheid regime in South Africa.  The refusal of Israel, over many years to honour its international obligations to [impose sanctions on and] isolate the apartheid regime did influence our attitude towards that government.”

Mandela was also a friend and loyal supporter of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In late February 1990, two weeks after being freed from 27 years in prison, Mandela met with Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Chairman Arafat. During this encounter Mandela spoke of his empathy with the Palestinian people and support for their efforts to an end the Israeli occupation.

Mandela told Arafat, “There are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO. We [South Africans and Palestinians] live under a unique form of colonialism. [South African] freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

Mandela argued, “If the truth alienates the Jewish community in South Africa, too bad.” These were harsh words for Mandela who had many Jewish comrades in his country’s freedom struggle, many of them leftists, critical of Israel.

Arafat responded to Mandela’s remarks by saying, “We are in the same trench, struggling against the same enemies, against apartheid, racism, colonialism and neocolonialism.”

Mandela’s apparent agreement with this statement caused a great deal of negative comment from the pro-Israel lobby and press in the US when, two months after his encounter with Arafat, Mandela made his triumphal eight-day tour of that country.

It must be noted that Mandela’s first meeting with Arafat took place 14 months after the PLO had issued the Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the US, Israel’s greatest friend and closest ally, had begun tentative talks with Arafat, who, like Mandela himself, had been branded a “terrorist”. 

In response to the outcry by Israel’s supporters over Mandela’s meeting with Arafat and endorsement of the Palestinian cause, Mandela retorted that the PLO and the Arabs had always backed the struggle of the ANC for liberation from apartheid. By contrast, he said, Israel had supported and sold arms to the white regime.

Mandela met Arafat three more times, more than any other world leader. Mandela also called for the creation of a Palestinian state and peace and reconciliation with an Israel living within secure borders.

Mandela welcomed the 1993 Oslo Accord which the world community hoped would lead to the emergence of a Palestinian state. When he and then South African President FW De Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize that year, Mandela argued it should have gone to and Arafat and the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. They and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were awarded the prize in 1994 when expectations of the Oslo peace process remained high.

However, De Klerk delivered an end to apartheid while Rabin and Peres and their successors stepped up colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories and began implementing a policy akin to South African apartheid.                

South Africa recognised the State of Palestine on February 15th, 1995, before Mandela became president, and Arafat made his first state visit to that country in August 1998.  Mandela conferred on him South Africa’s Order of Merit, Excellence Class, while Arafat awarded Mandela the Palestinian Star of Jerusalem.

Mandela visited Israel in 1999 after his term as president ended. He met then Israeli Premier Ehud Barak and urged him to rescue the moribund Oslo peace process but Barak did not take Mandela’s advice. 

During a meeting with Arafat in Gaza, Mandela backed the PLO’s use of force to achieve liberation. Mandela stated, “All men and women with vision choose peace rather than confrontation, except in cases where we cannot proceed, where we cannot move forward. The, if the only alternative is violence, we will use violence.”

When Arafat died in November 2004, Mandela hailed him as an “icon in the proper sense of the word. [and] one of the outstanding freedom fighters of this generation, one who gave his entire life to the cause of the Palestinian people.

“We honour his memory today. We express our sincerest condolences to his wife, family and the Palestinian people.  It is with great sadness that one notes that his and his people’s dream of a Palestinian state has not yet been realised.”

Undoubtedly, these words resonated in Netanyahu’s head when considering whether or not to go to South Africa. Clearly, Netanyahu did not grasp Mandela’s post-apartheid call for reconciliation among South Africans and all peoples.

Events of remembrance for Mandela have been held across the West Bank and in Gaza. Last Sunday, PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi attended a special service at a church in Ramallah.  She stated that for Mandela, “Palestine was not a question of solidarity or advocacy, but it was [a cause] that he internalised and participated in as one of us.  The linkage between South Africa and Palestine that Mandela spelled out was one of shared principles and struggles, primarily for self-determination, freedom, and human dignity.”
____________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict
 

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