Netanyahu’s Mandela Manipulation

Can the Israeli prime minister emulate F.W. de Klerk and shed the role of ethnic warlord?

In his tribute to Nelson Mandela following the South African statesman’s death, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described him as “a man of vision, a fighter for freedom who rejected violence.”

Really?

Here’s an extract from Mandela’s statement to the court during his 1964 trial for sabotage and treason: “We were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the Government. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and when the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.”

Elaborating in the same speech on why he and his comrades had resorted to violence, Mandela said: “I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love for violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites.”

So much for Netanyahu’s “fighter for freedom who rejected violence.”

For Mandela, violence was a means, not an end. He operated peacefully as long as he could, until the apartheid regime closed off every peaceful avenue. When he had no other option, he adopted violent resistance — and he paid for it with 27 years in prison, many of them doing hard labor. He returned to peaceful negotiation as soon as he was able, and his leadership was instrumental in averting civil war in South Africa.

Mandela never renounced his use of violence, but by 1990 it was no longer necessary. By then, the apartheid regime needed him more than he needed it. International sanctions, unstoppable demographic change and the crippling costs of maintaining apartheid had brought South Africa to its knees. The regime spent several years negotiating the best deal it could get, but the end of apartheid was preordained. It had run its course.

Nelson Mandela knew that there was a time for violence, but that it would always, inevitably, be followed by a time of peacemaking. F.W. de Klerk, prime minister of South Africa at the time of Mandela’s release from prison and the liberation leader’s chief interlocutor, understood that too. In a dramatic speech to parliament on February 2, 1990, he announced both the release of Mandela and the imminent end of apartheid.

Reflecting on that speech at a distance of 20 years, De Klerk said: “The whites wanted to hang on to as much as they could and were too greedy … I had long come to the realization that we were involved in a downward spiral of increasing violence and we could not hang on indefinitely. We were involved in an armed struggle where there would be no winners. The key decision I had to take now, for myself, was whether to make a paradigm shift.”

Both De Klerk and Mandela faced deep division in their own ranks from those who were opposed to making any concessions to the other side; who were incapable of seeing their opponents as humans with the same aspirations, hopes and fears as themselves.

The right wing of De Klerk’s party and the reactionary Conservative Party to its right accused the prime minister of treason and naïveté (sound familiar?) Demonstrators chanted “Hang de Klerk, hang Mandela” and, for good measure, “Hang the Jews.”

But the cause of peace had found two tough champions in Mandela and De Klerk. They stood firm in the face of irrationality, hatred and violence, they resolved the differences between them in grinding and harrowing negotiations and they both made what Israeli politicians are fond of calling (though never making) “painful concessions.” The new South Africa was born.

It’s a pity that Netanyahu, vulgar and transparent as usual, tried to manipulate Mandela for his own purposes. It might be comforting to contrast the supposedly peaceful anti-apartheid legend with the obviously nonpeaceful Palestinians – but that’s not the way it was or is. Both sides wield violence in an armed conflict and state violence is no less lethal than the irregular kind.

If the South African analogy is applied to Israel, Netanyahu plays the De Klerk role. He can continue being the bloody ethnic warlord with a powerful army at his disposal or he can overcome the atavistic tribalism of his background and undergo what De Klerk described in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech as “a process of introspection, of soul searching; of repentance; of realization of the futility of ongoing conflict, of acknowledgement of failed policies and the injustice it brought with it.”

As De Klerk said in the same speech: “The question that we must ask is whether we are making progress toward the goal of universal peace, or are we caught up on a treadmill of history, turning forever on the axle of mindless aggression and self-destruction?”

“Repression, injustice and exploitation are inimical with peace. Peace is gravely threatened by inter-group fear and envy and by the unleashing of unrealistic expectations. Racial, class and religious intolerance and prejudice are its mortal enemies.”

The choice is Netanyahu’s.

Roy Isacowitz is a journalist and writer living in Tel Aviv.

AP