Savir's Corner: We need Mandelas

Nelson Mandela: the man who from Robben Island Prison united the whole world in a profound desire for freedom.

Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie after his prison release (photo credit: REUTERS)
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie after his prison release
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For the first time in many decades, it seems that the whole world is mourning.
The death of Nelson Mandela did not come as a surprise, as the death of John F. Kennedy did. And yet many people will be asked from now on – where were you when the death of Mandela was announced? People the world over feel the loss of a light, of a moral compass, of a unique type of leadership. Flags were at half-mast, leaders expressed condolences, people in all corners of the world felt grief and expressed it in millions of social network messages, in word, song and picture.
Nelson Mandela: the man who from Robben Island Prison united the whole world in a profound desire for freedom.
His powerful messages of hope, love, reconciliation, forgiveness and courage struck a chord in almost everyone. His was a leadership of values, in faith and in deed, not of ego and self-interest; a leadership that has altered the fate of South Africa, leading to a peaceful transition of power, avoiding massive bloodshed; a leadership that gave the whole African continent a direction of hope and pride, and which created a bridge between Africa and the world.
Above all, Mandela’s leadership set new standards for the world – a belief in the good of men and equality between them, preferring forgiveness to vengeance and reconciliation to conflict, respecting the dignity of every human being; a leadership for peace.
A leadership that attains goals by bridging the gap between conflicting interests with humanitarian values, and that struggles for their attainment, against all odds. The courage to stand up for what is right, and not for what is popular, and the tendency not to give in to the shortcomings of human nature or to short-sightedness of politics.
This is what Madiba stood for, and his legacy will be a guide for generations to come, no less than Mahatma Gandhi’s. Our region, which is also grieving over the passing of Mandela, needs to reflect on his legacy and his model of leadership. This is especially true today, as our region is at a crossroads between war and peace, between fundamentalism and modernization, between respecting differences and racism, between aspiring to equality and surrendering to complexes of superiority; and for us in Israel, between peace with our nextdoor neighbors out of equality, and a dangerous deterioration into violence and loss of human and national identities.
Our region, more than others, is in need of a Mandela – both an Israeli Mandela and an Arab Mandela, as today’s leaders in Israel and Palestine are anything but that.
In Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu is a skillful and popular leader. Yet his is not a leadership of values, but of force. It is based on an almost paranoid mistrust of national and political foes. Netanyahu actually believes that we are a light unto the nations; that given our history and tragic past, we have a superior right to the greater land of Israel.
He concludes from the past that enemies will remain enemies forever and that by crude force we can bring them to surrender to all our demands. It comes with a xenophobic worldview and an almost messianic ambition to alter reality. He lacks any compassion for the other, the different; he is unable to create a common language, turning enemies into partners, and he does not have the courage to make decisions that could resolve a historic conflict.
He is everything that Mandela was not.
His counterpart in Ramallah is also not a Mandela. Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), while moderate and opposed to violence, lacks the stature to make a quantum leap to resolve this historic conflict.
Both leaders give in to consensus, act out of political self-interest, avoid taking risks and are in love with their positions and rhetoric.
Israel and Palestine need and deserve better.
What would an Israeli or Palestinian Mandela do? An Israeli Mandela, one can assume, would first and foremost tell his people the truth – that the occupation of another people, taking away their freedoms, is immoral, impossible and self-defeating. Nelson Mandela showed compassion to his white oppressors and guaranteed their equality in the agreement he reached with F.W. de Klerk. An Israeli Mandela would seek reconciliation with the Palestinian people out of honest, mutual respect.
Peace to Mandela was not the absence of war, but a real and moral human condition, based on the recognition of fundamental equalities and rights. As such, an Israeli Mandela would speak directly to the Palestinians in their parliament in Ramallah about his full respect for their human and natural rights and their desire for freedom and self-determination, without ever giving up on his own pride, identity and interests.
Reconciliation is not an agreement between leaders, but a profound and gradual change of attitudes, understanding the best kept secret of conflict – that we are all humans.
An Israeli Mandela would forgive and teach us to forgive; as Nelson Mandela forgave the perpetrators of apartheid and antiblack violence. He would say it and prove it in deeds, such as in the release of former terrorists. He would look for symbolic gestures to create mutual trust as the real Mandela did when he chose to actively support the white South Africa rugby team, the pride of the white oppressors. In our case, he would have maybe laid a wreath on the tomb of Yasser Arafat, not out of admiration for him, but out of understanding of what he means to the Palestinians.
More than anything, an Israeli Mandela would show courage to make historic decisions to lead Israel to an all-important peace, rescuing our Jewish and democratic identity, not because of demographics, but due to humanitarian values that have to guide and protect us. A Mandela deal would be fair, securing fundamental interests for both sides, understanding that ultimately Israel’s security will stem mainly from peace with our neighbors and not from settlements.
Such an Israeli leader would dramatically strengthen our all-important position in the international community and our strategic relations with the United States, being a friend to Barack Obama. This would dramatically affect our security and economy, and above all our moral integrity.
As for Palestine, a Palestinian Mandela would also tell his people the truth – that Israel is here to stay, that it must, for their own good, be turned from enemy into a neighbor, that a Palestinian state will not come about without a historic compromise with the Jewish state. He would seek reconciliation, calling on his people to relate to Israelis with compassion, to understand, even with disagreement, the Jewish historical narrative.
He would express understanding and support for Israel’s security needs in a hostile region. He would express these views to the Knesset in Jerusalem. In such a process of reconciliation, people-to-people relations would be seen as useful to Palestine and not as “normalization” favors to Israel. A Palestinian Mandela would lay a wreath at tomb of Yitzhak Rabin.
A Palestinian Mandela would forgive Israel, mainly for the occupation. Forgiveness to Nelson Mandela was the alternative to vengeance and the path to peaceful coexistence.
Above all, the Palestinian Mandela would have the courage to make a difficult historic compromise in order to create the independent Palestinian state, by giving up the implementation of the right of return to sovereign Israel, and opening sovereign Palestine to the Palestinian diaspora. Palestine under a Mandela would be popular among the nations, supported by them and a model Arab democracy.
Well, unfortunately there are no Mandelas on the Israeli or Palestinian horizon, according to Nelson Mandela’s own definition of leadership: “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have the idea when you are arrogant, superficial and misinformed.”
One hopes that today’s leaders will listen to his advice and become more modest and courageous. In any case, Mandela-type leaders could come from our young – Israelis and Palestinians alike. People void of the bitterness, suspicion and cynicism that comes from misinterpreting experience.
In this vein, I have recently launched – together with the world famous actor Sharon Stone, a friend and disciple of Mandela – the Nelson Mandela Online Peace Academy as part of the YaLa-Young Leaders online peace movement (with 430,000 followers from the Middle East on Facebook). It will be a virtual home for 1,000 Israeli and Arab students, also from Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. The topics of study will be peacemaking, peace-building, truth, reconciliation and forgiveness. The teachers will be peacemakers from Israel, Palestine, Morocco, South Africa, Rwanda, Ireland and the Balkans, all with great know-how and experience in peacemaking. The Academy has prominent academic partners such as professors from the Harvard Program on Negotiation, David Axelrod’s Chicago Institute of Politics and the United States Institute for Peace. The American State Department supports part of YaLa’s academic activities.
We hope that out of this brilliant cadre of young Arabs and Israelis, with time and the enriching experience that they will gain, new Mandelas will come to the forefront.
God knows we need them.The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.