Netanyahu Knows Where the Mandela Road Leads

Now that the settler right is deriding Netanyahu for losing his ideology, Israel's prime minister faces the Mandela pragmatism test. Will he pass?

We’re nearing the tipping point, I suspect. One more article about Nelson Mandela may be enough to send people into the streets, tearing out their hair at the sheer overkill of it all. I don’t know if the saturation coverage has extended to gun-obsessed America but, if it has, mass-murder could result. The situation is dire.

I’m hoping to slip in one final comment before the mayhem begins. Not because I have anything more of interest or value to say, but because someone else has. If the Mandela memorial event’s sign language interpreter is accompanying this piece, please make sure you get that right.

I’m referring to Israel Harel’s recent opinion piece in Haaretz (“Israel loyalists: Netanyahu needs our support,” December 12) which, ironically, doesn’t even mention Mandela. That’s the greatness of it. Harel managed to put his finger on the one Mandela quality that virtually every other columnist I have read missed. And he did so inadvertently.

Harel’s thesis is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone wrong by dropping ideology in favor of security-oriented pragmatism. In doing so, he argues, the premier has left himself vulnerable to security proposals from the U.S. Once negotiations are restricted to the security track, “the only thing left for Netanyahu to bargain about is an improvement in the outline, at most.”

Netanyahu’s “disengagement from his own ideology, from his natural habitat, from the Likud,” Harel writes, “is what is causing him to face a hopeless situation on almost all the fronts.”

I never thought I’d say this, but I agree with virtually everything that Israel Harel wrote – though not his conclusions, of course.

So where’s Mandela in that, you may ask?

Mandela was everything that Harel deprecates in Netanyahu and he was the polar opposite of everything Harel thinks Netanyahu should be.

The greatness of Mandela was actually that he was not an ideologue. He worked for decades with communists, but he never became one of them. After 1976, he was surrounded by young Black Power activists on Robben Island, but he managed to persuade most of them to follow his path, rather than following theirs.

Before and immediately after his release from prison, Mandela was a proponent of the nationalization of state assets, particularly the mines. But he soon dropped that demand, as the realities of South Africa and the country’s desperate need for white capital and investment became clear to him.

His abandonment of one of the central tenets of communism and a core article of the 1955 Freedom Charter caused huge dissension among the ANC’s communist and trade union partners, but Mandela never wavered. If the ideology was not suited to the time or the situation, the ideology had to go.

Not that Mandela was short of principles or moral values; the opposite is true. He was a profoundly principled man, but his values were humanistic and universal. What applied to him – to his race, tribe or group – applied to all people; he did not abide discrimination of any sort. Black Power was as unacceptable to him as Afrikaner domination and the dictatorship of the proletariat. They were all group self-infatuations, while Mandela’s vision was more molecular; he operated on the level of the human being.

It may be coincidence that Harel chose to berate Netanyahu for abandoning ideology in the very week that the world’s eyes are on South Africa and the parting from the world’s greatest pragmatist. But it is enormously significant, not least because it displays Israel’s options in sharp counterpoint.

Israel can choose the way of Mandela or the way of Harel.

It can accept that there are two claims to this tiny strip of land and negotiate sincerely for an equitable solution, or it can dig in behind the ramparts of Jewish exceptionalism and gird itself for a future of bloodshed without end.

Neither option is easy, but anybody who admired Nelson Mandela and what he stood for has only one choice.

Compromising with the Palestinians and making peace will mean abandoning dreams, acknowledging past injustices and dealing with the charged and highly unstable reality that our own actions have created. But it’s the only way Israel will be able to rejoin the world and create a future of hope for our children.

Succumbing to ideology, as Harel demands, is actually the easy way out. It’s just more of the same – more hatred, more brutality, more war, more sanctions and more isolation. I have no doubt that for the entrenched ideologue it has, for as long as it lasts, the warm and snuggly feeling of being right – but it’s still not right. Ask the victims of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and the Inquisition, ideologues all.

If Netanyahu was being honest in his praise of Mandela, he knows where the Mandela road leads. It leads to recognizing the other as also human and reconciling with him. If he doesn’t follow that road, he’s the hypocrite I’ve always taken him to be.