In March 1992, I joined other white South Africans in participating in a referendum. Excited to participate in an historic event, it was to be the first and, fortunately, last time I would vote in an all-white election. Two years later, in 1994, universal suffrage was introduced in South Africa, and with it, true freedom and democracy, which redeemed us all.
The ruling National Party government at the time was headed by president F.W. de Klerk who had begun a reform process and initiated negotiations with the African National Congress following his historic 1990 speech in the then all-white South African Parliament. In one sweeping moment he unbanned the ANC, announced the imminent release of Nelson Mandela, and set in motion a legislative agenda for the swift repeal of the worst Apartheid legislation.
He led his National Party – the same party that had laid the architecture of the Apartheid state in 1948 – to begin a process of constitutional negotiations with the ANC and other parties, with the open intention of creating the framework for full one-person- one-vote democracy and freedom for all South Africans, black and white.
The decision wasn’t unanimously popular. Two years later, de Klerk’s party lost a crucial parliamentary by-election in a constituency of Potchefstroom to the Conservative Party, which had campaigned on the platform of reversing the dramatic reforms de Klerk had initiated. Dr. Andries Treurnicht, the CP’s hardline right-wing leader, vowed to restore full Apartheid if his party was elected in a general election. The scale and prominence of the CP’s by-election victory seemed to be a repudiation of the reform process begun by de Klerk; it called into question the legitimacy and the mandate of the National Party to negotiate.
And so, in what at the time was perceived to be a shock move, president F.W. de Klerk declared a national referendum, putting before white voters a simple yes or no option to the following question: “Do you support the continuation of the reform process which the State President began on 2 February 1990 which is aimed at a new Constitution through negotiation?” A bitter campaign was fought, and in the end de Klerk carried the referendum with 69 percent of the white voters voting “yes.”
De Klerk’s mandate having been established, negotiations with the ANC proceeded apace.
I was obviously one of the “yes” voters in the referendum, and at the time, this concept of mandate made a deep impression on me. I understood then a central tenet of conflict resolution – you cannot negotiate without a mandate to do so. It is this issue of mandate – or lack thereof – that is casting a shadow over the current John Kerry-facilitated negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.
Even if Mahmoud Abbas and the PA leadership agree to a deal with the Israelis, the question will remain as to whether they have a legitimate mandate from the Palestinian people to arrive at such an agreement.
There is clearly a mandate to do so on the Israeli side – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu heads a democratically elected, wide-ranging coalition government in one of the world’s most robust democracies.
Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, are not the elected leaders of the Palestinian people. They have not been to an election with their people for many years, and Fatah lost the last election it faced in the Gaza Strip. It is instructive, also, to examine those parties not represented at the negotiating table. Hamas, which represents the remaining Palestinians, has declared openly and often that it rejects any peace arrangement with Israel, and that a Jewish state on any part of the Land of Israel, including within the 1947 UN borders, is completely illegitimate. As it states explicitly in its charter, “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.”
The question about mandate is a fundamental one, and one which requires urgent attention from world leaders, and in particular, from US Secretary of State John Kerry and the American administration who are pursuing these peace talks with such determined passion. Every decent person wants peace but without honesty and truth, peace has no chance.
The Talmud states that the signature value of G-d is truth. It says further that truth endures forever, whereas falsehood does not. For these peace negotiations put forward by John Kerry to succeed, they have to be rooted in truth. The question of mandate is a question of honesty and integrity.
If the parties sitting around the table have the mandate to negotiate on behalf of their constituents, then it is a process rooted in truth and reality. If the negotiating parties do not have a mandate to negotiate on behalf of their constituencies – as the Palestinian Authority does not – then the very concept of negotiations is meaningless.
At the moment, these Kerry-sponsored talks exist in a twilight zone of negotiators without mandate, proceeding in an Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy world.
John Kerry must follow the lead of South African president de Klerk who had the integrity and wisdom to understand the need for a referendum when his mandate was questioned.
Making the final agreement subject to a referendum – at least amongst Palestinians – is the only way to restore the integrity of these negotiations, which in the absence of legitimate mandate would be almost comically absurd if not for the serious and very real things at stake. Such a referendum would connect the negotiating process to the world of reality, and ensure that the final deal has the legal, moral and political legitimacy it needs to survive.
Even with his democratic mandate, it would wise and proper for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to call a referendum amongst Israelis, given the historic and irrevocable nature of the outcome of these negotiations.
But without addressing the absence of mandate, these Alice-in-Wonderland negotiations have no integrity, and can never lead to real peace, because they only exist in the world of fantasy.
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.