A pity we didn’t listen

The former South African president wanted good ties with Israel, dependent on freedom for the Palestinians.

A pity we didn’t listen (photo credit: REUTERS)
A pity we didn’t listen
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the summer of 1992, a few months after Yitzhak Rabin’s election victory, I was appointed ambassador to South Africa. Just four days after my arrival the phone rang at six o’clock in the morning. It was Nelson Mandela himself on the line. Nearly three years out of prison, he was preparing for office in the long run-up to South Africa’s first fully democratic election. “I hear Israel is changing its policy,” he said. “Let’s talk.”
In that same week the Rabin government had abrogated the law prohibiting meetings with PLO officials and, after months of secret negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel signed the Oslo Declaration of Principles.
Mandela began to relate to the Israeli government – and therefore to me as ambassador – with unqualified approval.
These circumstances gave me the huge privilege of frequent meetings with Mandela, in which we often discussed the issue that concerned him most – the right of the Palestinian people to be free.
In our very first meeting Mandela told me that if the Israeli government granted the Palestinians their right to freedom “the new South Africa would look only forward in its relations with Israel.” The corollary was obvious.
If he was forced to take a backward look, Israel’s past ties with the apartheid regime would hurt relations between the two states.
During that first meeting I invited him to visit Israel and he accepted on the spot. There was just one condition: That besides Israeli leaders, he would also be able to meet the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. (The plan was to arrange for that to happen in Amman).
The visit failed to materialize during the heady Oslo days and, after Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, was put on hold. It was only after Ehud Barak’s election as prime minister that Mandela came to Israel in October 1999 and offered his good offices as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.
The polite rejection he received could well be something we come to regret.
Throughout his political career, Mandela remained consistent in his attitude to Israel: respect and even admiration for its achievements, but with good relations dependent on freedom for the Palestinians.
Mandela was undoubtedly one of the great men of the 20th century, the moral leader of the free world. Everywhere across the globe he was held in the highest esteem. The reactions to his death in Jerusalem and Tehran were almost identical. It would have been possible to publish a joint notice of mourning.
What was it that made the man so universally great? His biography, of course, had something to do with it. Mandela spent 27 years in jail, 15 of them in a tiny cell with hard labor. The apartheid regime depicted him as a dangerous terrorist and destroyed his family’s life outside the prison. Then, to the world’s astonishment, he emerged from prison unbowed, with an engaging smile, eyes twinkling and a hand stretched out in friendship to his erstwhile enemies and tormentors. He would go on to carry out a democratic transformation in South Africa, transferring power from the entrenched white minority to the hitherto disenfranchised black majority without spilling a single drop of blood.
But it wasn’t only his biography or his innate charisma that made Mandela great. It was also a unique combination of four character traits that shaped his political modus operandi: • Optimism: He always looked forward, with a profound belief in the good in man and a rare capacity to win over opponents, even the evil among them.
• Personal warmth: He exuded warmth and empathy, with an amazing ability to listen and to put personal frustrations, including feelings of bitterness and anger, aside.
• Unshakable belief in the justice of the cause: This gave him a sharp, clear-eyed vision of the solution, a stubborn streak in the struggle to get there, and an uncompromising commitment to democratic principles.
• Asceticism and self-discipline: He made great sacrifices in his personal and family life, displayed genuine modesty and an ironwilled capacity to resist temptation, including offers of release from prison with strings attached.
Unfortunately for us, a cursory glance at these qualities shows just how much we lack leaders of his caliber today in our region and beyond.
Alon Liel, ambassador to South Africa from 1992-1994, is the author of “Black Justice: The South African Upheaval” and “Gate to Equality: South Africa Builds a Nation”