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Nelson Mandela’s Nuanced Support For A Two-State Solution In Israel and Palestine


In general, one can say that among Israeli and Palestinian supporters – even among nationalists for the two nations – there is significantly more love for Nelson Mandela within the the latter than the former. There is no question that Nelson Mandela supported freedom for the Palestinian people, and spoke often of their right to self-determination. But his approach to Israel was a little more complex and nuanced, requiring a more discussion and thought than a single line on a social media meme might provide.

On June 12, 1994, The New York Times published an editorial by Clyde Haberman where Nelson Mandela was asked about his support for the Palestinian struggle. Haberman noted the following, after the election of the African National Congress leader:

South Africa has a black President who once hugged Yasir Arafat, and the white Government that Israel used to work closely with is gone. And Israel itself has come to accept and negotiate with Mr. Arafat, albeit with a correct handshake and not Nelson Mandela’s joyous embrace.

All of which leaves Israeli officials wondering where they stand with the new Government in South Africa and what the implications may be for that country’s Jews, who are leaving for Israel and other destinations in growing numbers.

In the aftermath of Mandela’s death, both supporters of Israel and Palestine alike have, in many cases, been trying to answer that question in a one-dimensional way. But Mandela was not one to issue “correct handshakes”, or to hold alienating grudges against those who the rest of us might not be able to help ourselves from resenting. This was certainly true of his relationship to members of the former Apartheid Regime, and of the white Afrikaner population. Yet, most have imagined when it comes to Israeli and Palestinian relations, Mandela was hardline, unforgiving and bought into notions which he did not embrace in his own nation.

To be specific, Mandela was a vocal supporter of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Haberman quoted a speech given August of 1993, to the Jewish Board of Deputies, a group of South African Jews, addressing the relationship of the Apartheid Regime in South Africa and Israel. Mandela was anything but one-dimensional on the subject, believing that both Israelis and Palestinians could co-exist, with separate borders, and equal rights to self-determination. Regardless of what one concludes about the roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict(s), Mandela was interested in practical solutions over ideological rhetoric.

As a movement, we recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognize the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders, but with equal vigor, support the Palestinian right to national self-determination.

He also noted that white Jews had no reason to fear ANC rule, nor to move to Israel. He further emphasized the role of leading Jewish ANC members, like Joe Slovo and others, who “have historically been disproportionately represented among our white compatriots in the liberation struggle.”

Revolutions require solutions, not just rhetoric or extreme where one side is fighting for all, against another side who is fighting for all. That may be a feel-good ideologically-polar approach, which tells those on both sides that they alone are fighting for Truth, with a capital T, but such approaches rarely achieve their stated aims.

As someone with his feet planted in both the worlds of Israel and Palestinian hopes, it occurs to me that both sides have been plagued by thinking that is very different than Mandela’s. Had the polarized approaches taken in the Israel-Palestine conflict been embraced by the former ANC leader, and president of South Africa, it is difficult to say how the history of that nation would have unfolded.

While my personal solution for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation and peace involves more than just a Two-State proposal, Mandela’s comments on the popular proposal should be a sobering reminder to those on both sides, that when peace, justice and reconciliation can exist together, so can former enemies.

(Article by Micah Naziri of the Hashlamah Project Foundation; image via the AFP)

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