Israel – the “Mandela” of the Middle East
Threatening rhetoric aimed at Israel in anticipation of a possible breakdown of United States-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is rising. Now, with the April deadline looming and still no framework in sight, US Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken openly about the possibility of sanctions against Israel emerging as a result of an impasse.
All decent people want real, lasting peace from this bitter conflict. At the same time, it should be obvious that such a peace cannot emerge amidst an atmosphere of disconnection from truth and history. The Talmud states: “The world stands on three things: justice, truth and peace.” These are intertwined and interdependent – without truth and justice there can be no peace. We all long for peace, but the road to peace starts with truth – in this instance, an acknowledgement of accurate historical record and precedent of the many attempts at a negotiated settlement.
These Kerry negotiations are not a new phenomenon – they follow more than six decades of similar plans for the “two-state solution”. Why has every effort thus far failed? The outlines for the solution have been in place since the United Nations voted to establish Jewish and Palestinian states side-by-side in 1948. It seems so obvious. Why has no progress been made? South Africa, which began its negotiations around the same time as the Oslo accords, this year celebrates twenty years of freedom and democracy – and yet the Arab/Israeli conflict seems no closer to resolution. Why? The answer lies in what happened in South Africa.
The South African experience has taught the world the seemingly self-evident idea that you cannot make peace on your own. No matter how much you want to. Peace negotiations, if they are to succeed, require peace partners. What this means, essentially, is that is to have any chance of creating a sustainable and lasting peace, all parties to the conflict must sincerely want to make a negotiated fair settlement – they must have both the mandate to make the compromises necessary for the final deal, as well as the willingness to do so.
The ANC, and Nelson Mandela in particular, are universally acclaimed for their sincere, accommodating and committed peacemaking efforts in bringing an end to Apartheid and the country’s racial conflict. Yet their example serves to illustrate that in order to make peace, you need to have an equally committed peace partner on the other side of the negotiating table.
In the early 1960’s, Nelson Mandela emerged as one of the main driving forces behind a more militant ANC approach to fighting Apartheid, co-founding the resistance movement’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), and becoming its first commander-in-chief. Mandela did so in the face of opposition from many iconic ANC leaders, such as Chief Albert Luthuli. The great reconciler, peace-maker and forgiver of hurt, Nelson Mandela, realized during those years that he could not make peace, simply because there was no genuine peace partner in the South African government at the time. Indeed, Prime Minister HF Verwoerd’s extreme intransigence to a negotiated settlement and compromise continued even in the face of significant political and social opposition, both within the country and internationally. Verwoerd presided over government actions such as the Sharpeville Massacre, the banning of the ANC and the infamous Rivonia Trial.
Not even Nelson Mandela could make peace on his own, and so he resorted to war.
“It was only when all else had failed, when all channels…had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle,” Mandela said from the dock at the Rivonia trial, before being sent off to jail. “We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice … The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight.”
In his autobiography, Mandela says: “I, who had never been a soldier, who had never fought in battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy, had been given the task of starting an army.” These words reflect the reality during the years leading up to the establishment of Israel and those immediately following its independence. The Jewish people, who for almost two thousand years had never had an army (or been involved in military conflict with any nation), were forced to establish one, in order to survive in a hostile region surrounded by many enemies who rejected the very concept of a Jewish state and Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.
Right from the beginning, after the United Nations passed its resolution for the establishment of Jewish and Arab states in the British mandate of Palestine, Jews accepted the stipulations of this early “two-state solution”, while the Arab world rejected it and sought to destroy the Jewish state in its infancy. Ever since then, whenever a genuine partner for peace has emerged, the government and the people of Israel have given up precious land for the promise of peace – with perhaps the most dramatic example being the ceding of the Sinai region to Egypt in a peace accord with President Sadat. “We have been waiting for you a long time” were the words with which Prime Minister Golda Meir (then already retired) greeted Sadat on his historic visit to Israel at that historic time of peace-making.
Tragically, in the decades since, the wait has continued. Like Mandela, the Jewish state has sought desperately for peace, but finding nobody with either the will or the mandate to do the same on the other side, has with the gravest reluctance been forced into war.
In the end, Nelson Mandela’s long wait was vindicated when President FW de Klerk came forward to be his partner for peace. De Klerk possessed both the will and the mandate to pursue peace and reconciliation, the South African conflict was resolved, and we are now celebrating the twentieth anniversary of freedom and democracy in South Africa.
Israel, meanwhile, waits. After a succession of unprecedented, all-encompassing offers to establish a Palestinian state put forward by Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert, were flatly rejected by the the Palestinian leadership, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was so desperate that, with the Gaza disengagement, he actually did try making peace on his own, without a partner – but to no avail as Gaza became a base for Hamas’ extremist agenda, and a launch pad for new kinds of military attacks on Israel.
Kerry’s threats and warnings to Israel are misplaced. How can Israel make peace on its own? So much of the debate is focusing on the concessions that Israel needs to make as part of accepting a two-state solution, but the truth is that Israel has always been ready and willing to make these concessions. From the birth of the state of Israel until today, the consensus among both Israeli civil society and the country’s leadership has always been that peace is a more valuable commodity than land; that the latter should come at the expense of the former every time – if such a trade-off is genuinely on offer at the negotiating table.
When the Camp David peace talks collapsed due to the intransigence of Yasser Arafat, at least President Bill Clinton had the integrity to acknowledge the truth behind what had happened. He did not blame Israel for the Palestinian rejection of the most generous Israeli offer in history, which included the most painful concession of all – dividing Jerusalem. Clinton didn’t punish or sanction Israel for not making peace alone, and, more importantly, he did not pressure Israel into making dangerous unreciprocated concessions.
At the very least we must demand from John Kerry the same integrity.