What are the leadership qualities that a leader needs both to avoid catastrophe and become a peacemaker?
- Breaking the chains of South Africa's apartheid, and marching on
- An Israeli and a Palestinian scathed by South Africa apartheid rhetoric
- Wanted, a Mandela. Or two
- Days of Ubuntu
- Former South African President Nelson Mandela 'in critical condition'
- Mandela’s Mideast message: Choose negotiations, not the battlefield
- What Netanyahu should learn from the fall of apartheid
- Mandela's Jewish comrades
- Coming in from the cold: Can Israel and South Africa restore warm ties?
- Empathy and humanity were what made Nelson Mandela great
- Netanyahu’s Mandela manipulation
- What does 'Israeli Apartheid' mean, anyway?
- Was the United States really against Mandela?
- Mandela was critical of occupation, but fully endorsed Israel's right to exist
Take Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement this week that the situation on Israel’s northern border and throughout the region is “very volatile” and that “whoever hurts Israel or threatens to hurt it will get hurt.” Does that have the peace-making ring about it that would resonate in the ears of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry?
It’s difficult to fault the premier’s prognosis, of course. Recent events in Syria seem to have notched up the tension in what was already a very fraught environment. But the statement does raise certain questions, such as whether Netanyahu and his government are capable of navigating the country safely through the turmoil; whether the “hurt us and we’ll hurt you” approach provides the prudent and considerate leadership that Israel needs in the current circumstances; and exactly how a policy of automatic retribution ties in with Netanyahu’s current persona of peacemaker and avid supporter of the Kerry merry-go-round.
Compare Netanyahu to Nelson Mandela, the world’s iconic peacemaker, who is now old and ailing in a Pretoria hospital. He is unable to help us with our predicament, though perhaps his legacy can. It occurred to me to examine whether Israel in 2013 can learn any lessons from Mandela’s extrication of South Africa from the chasm of 1994.
The first and clearest lesson one can learn from Mandela is that peace is only achievable if the putative peacemakers believe in it. “One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen,” Mandela once said. Does Israel’s current leadership truly believe in peace? Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett are on record as saying that they don’t. Netanyahu maintains that he does, though I can’t help looking for the fingers crossed behind his back whenever he says it.
Peace is both an abstract concept – “a winner is a dreamer who never gives up,” according to Mandela – and a very finite calculation of profit and loss. Peace means making compromises – and Mandela came perilously close to losing his base of support among South Africa’s blacks in compromising to the extent that he did. He was prepared to take significant risks in the interest of peace. Are Israel’s leaders prepared to do likewise?
Mandela was able to take risks and make compromises because he believed in what he was doing and he had a clear vision of the South Africa that could emerge. Addressing the court at the conclusion of his trial for treason in 1964, he said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Vision is about the future. (My dictionary defines it as “the act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be.”) Auschwitz is not the future; it’s the past. The 2000-year exile and the pogroms are also the past. Not that one shouldn’t remember the past, but memory does not constitute vision. Vision is about overcoming the past by making things better in the future; things like converting tanks into tractors or Jewish and Arab kids playing together.
I can’t claim to have done exhaustive research, but a couple of hours trawling the Haaretz online archive and Google have not turned up a single visionary statement by a current Israeli leader, with the exception of Shimon Peres, who speaks from the distinctly non-executive position of president. Netanyahu and company are highly verbal when it comes to expressing what they won’t accept or nickel-and-diming about preconditions and issues of prestige, but visions of peace? Nothing. It’s very difficult to believe that people who lack the capacity to even imagine peace are capable of reaching it.
When it comes to actual peacemaking, Mandela’s message is that it takes courage to make peace and “courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Fear is the ubiquitous parrot on the shoulders of all peacemakers. Israelis are legitimately fearful of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Palestinians, after the Nakba and 46 years of occupation, are legitimately fearful of Israel. Fear is a given. The job of leaders - on both sides – is to mitigate those fears by conquering their own fears and assisting their populations to do likewise.
Portraying each potential danger as a Holocaust-in-waiting does not qualify as courage. It’s nothing more than cheap and cynical manipulation. Likewise, massive retaliation to every provocation aggravates the public’s fears, rather than allaying them. Playing on the public’s fears is a time-honored tactic in Israel (it distracts attention from such mundane things as tax increases,) but it’s unlikely to lead us any closer to peace.
Significantly, personal fears weren’t the only thing that Mandela conquered. He also managed to overcome his prejudices and he learned to live with his scars, including those left by 27 years in an apartheid prison. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison,” he wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Compare that to the Israeli habit of flaunting our scars and wallowing in the history of their infliction.
As Mandela describes them, peace negotiations seem to be a lot like therapy; they’ll only succeed if you’re willing to look deep inside yourself and battle your own demons. “One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others,” he wrote. Are Netanyahu, Lieberman et al capable of leaving their own, self-imposed prisons? Without it, according to the Mandela principles, there may be a lot of talk but there will be very little peace.
Above all, Nelson Mandela is a man of empathy. He is able to look at his opponents and see human beings; people with their own histories and myths; their own hurts and their own desire for dignity. Negotiations succeed when concessions are freely made and all parties believe that they have won more than they have lost. Dictates and ultimatums are good for starting wars but not for reaching peace. Or, as Mandela put it: “Only free men can negotiate; prisoners can't enter into contracts.”
Are Israelis capable of seeing Palestinians as free men and allowing them their own victories? Can the hard-bitten Israeli psyche conceive of a future in which Jews and Arabs live in peace, without either having the upper hand? On such things will peace in the Middle East depend. Unfortunately, the record to date does not inspire much confidence.
Roy Isacowitz is a writer and marketer living in Tel Aviv. He spent many years working for the Israeli and foreign media.