Mandela Was Critical of Occupation, but Fully Endorsed Israel's Right to Exist

Mandela’s most notable quotes on the conflict remind us why Netanyahu may have decided it wasn’t worth the trip.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

One of Nelson Mandela’s richest legacies to the world is his treasure trove of quotes that inspire and encourage. Just look at these from the Daily Beast or these on Brainy Quote – or take a little traipse on Twitter or Facebook and you’ll feel convinced we can all do the impossible, that democracy will overcome tyranny, that the bitterest of enemies can make peace.

Assessing his legacy in this part of the world is a little more complicated. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced on Monday that the premier would not attend the Mandela’s funeral, citing the soaring costs of a last-minute trip, it underscored the less-than-chummy relations between Israel and South Africa. President Shimon Peres is also staying home, because he has the flu.

But tight budgets and sick notes do little to mask the lingering discomfort between the two nations. Jerusalem maintained close military and economic ties with Johannesburg even in the final days of the apartheid regime, when most of the world was backing away, and the then-leader of the African National Congress never forgot it. And as international criticism of the status quo has grown, the apartheid label fashioned in South Africa has migrated north and been stuck on Israel, most notably by the broker of the Camp David Accords, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, in his 2006 book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”

A survey of some of Mandela’s comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict evince that he was indeed highly critical of the Israeli occupation and the absence of an independent Palestine from map of the world. But Mandela fully endorsed Israel’s right to exist – and thought the Arabs states would need to reconcile fully with Israel in the context of a peace agreement.

“To the many people who have questioned why I came, I say: Israel worked very closely with the apartheid regime. I say: I’ve made peace with many men who slaughtered our people like animals. Israel cooperated with the apartheid regime, but it did not participate in any atrocities…My view is that talk of peace remains hollow if Israel continues to occupy Arab lands.” - to reporters during a visit to Israel in 1999, following a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy.

“I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders.” – Israel visit in 1999

“I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.” - from his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”

"We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” - Speech in Pretoria 1997 for International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people

“When in 1977, the United Nations passed the resolution inaugurating the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, it was asserting the recognition that injustice and gross human rights violations were being perpetrated in Palestine. In the same period, the UN took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years, an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system." - Speech in Pretoria 1997 for International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people

“It's a tragedy what is happening, what Bush is doing. All Bush wants is Iraqi oil. There is no doubt that the U.S. is behaving badly. Why are they not seeking to confiscate weapons of mass destruction from their ally Israel?...If there is a country that has committee unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America.” - Speech at the International Women's Forum in Johannesburg in January 2003, prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq

In this Dec. 10, 1993 file photo, South African Deputy President F.W. de Klerk, right, and South African President Nelson Mandela pose with their Nobel Peace Prize Gold Medals and Diplomas in Oslo.Credit: AP

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