It’s almost incongruous to connect Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin in the same thought. Yet, beyond the legend of each man – one, the prisoner and revolutionary who brought down South Africa’s apartheid regime, the other, the tough general who led the Israeli forces to victory in the 1967 Six Day War – were two men who strived not only for peace, but also for reconciliation.
When apartheid collapsed in South Africa, Mandela worked to set up a ”Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, a critical step that eventually led the black majority to forgive the crimes committed by the white Afrikaner government. Though life today in the country is far from perfect, the changes are more than remarkable. He adopted policies, both symbolic and real, to make white Afrikaners feel wanted in the new South Africa. Where chaos once threatened, today we see the most democratic country in Africa, a country at peace with its neighbors, and to a large measure, within itself. Yes, problems remain – a challenging economy, lingering crime and violence, inadequate labor rights – but these are common to many countries.
When Rabin embarked on the peace process, he knew that it wasn’t enough to just sign on the dotted line of the Oslo Accords. He understood that without a process of normalizing the relationship between Israeli and Palestinian societies, and without ending the occupier/occupied relationship, peace had no chance. And during that short period between the handshake with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn and his assassination two years later by an angry supporter of the settlements in November 1995, Rabin had embarked on a policy of rapprochement and people-to-people contact between Israelis and Palestinians. I remember it as a time of optimism and good cheer, a time when many Palestinians commuted to work in Israel from Gaza, with only cursory checks by border police. Residents of the West Bank came to Tel Aviv to shop and swim in the Mediterranean. Israelis went to Jenin and Tulkarm to buy vegetables and fruit, or drove 10 minutes from Jerusalem to Ramallah to enjoy the excellent falafel. While those days won’t return, the two-state solution should include some measures of cooperation that while not integrating the economies of the two states with each other, will help both to thrive. As Mandela said: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” Rabin was trying to work with Israel’s enemy when he was gunned down at the age of 73. Who knows what partnership could have been accomplished had he lived until he was 80, or 85?
Both Mandela and Rabin understood that without making sincere gestures to the other side, ”peace” would be just an empty word. It was necessary to help people, white and black, Israeli and Palestinian, come together without resentments. Mandela was elected President of South Africa, and succeeded in bringing peace to his country. Rabin had begun a similar process, only for it to be derailed by an assassin’s bullets. Benjamin Netanyahu, who became Prime Minister after elections were called, led Israel away from this process because of fear and distrust, and maybe, because of arrogance. His policies have made Israelis feel more isolated and threatened than they’ve been at any time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Palestinians ever more angry and resentful of the occupation. The optimism that both the majority of Israelis and the majority of Palestinians felt, vanished in the anger and fear of suicide bombings, the Al-Aqsa (second) intifada, the walls and fences of the “separation barrier”, the closure of the territories, and of course, the massive construction of settlements.
These days, as we mourn the death of Mandela, and rejoice in his accomplishments, I also mourn for Rabin, for what could – for what should – have been. And hope that we will find others like them.