In the wake of the events of October the 7th 2023 and the resulting war in Gaza, many of those in the peace camp in Israel – and indeed various other pundits on the Israeli side, are now looking at what I term “The Mandela Option”. The idea calls for a release of Marwan Barghouti from incarceration in order to provide some kind of rational leadership and a united Palestinian front including Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others. The reasoning is that Barghouti could provide a stable national Palestinian leadership thereby enabling a stable partner with which Israel could negotiate.
However we need to look closely at the premises and at this tempting idea that the magic of Mandela applies here in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The South African model, so to speak, came about at a time in South Africa where the concept of apartheid was roundly condemned across the world. Thus in releasing Mandela by the Government of South Africa in 1990, it would provide full legitimacy for both white and black South Africa, peace, an end to the conflict, an end to apartheid and thereby create a democratic future. This would then put to rest a near worldwide condemnation, embargoes and more, and bring South Africa into the family of nations.
Unfortunately this warm fuzzy feeling of an end, at last, to the conflict here in Israel-Palestine, has very little, if any foundation on the South African model and other than the concept of releasing a political prisoner, there are very few similarities to Israel today. While I wouldn’t completely rule this option out at some point, it is based on both shaky ground and wishful thinking at this time.
South African apartheid was based both on two main concepts. The concept of the “swart gevaar” a term in Afrikaans meaning the danger of blacks. It also emerged from the twisted philosophy of white European thinking ranging from far back, when the Dutch first landed there and later from an era of British control, whereby Europeans saw themselves as superior in every respect – culturally, religiously, educationally, philosophically, scientifically and more. But the “swart gevaar” really became a normative way of thinking due to the fact that throughout the country’s history, people of color outnumbered whites, ranging from indigenous inhabitants who were mainly black tribesmen and women, and later those of mixed race, slaves from the east and more. Most importantly, however, was the fear that this vast number of people of color, far outnumbering whites, would at some point, either threaten, kill, or control in some way, European white South Africans.
It’s important to note and to internalize clearly that in South Africa at the height of apartheid in the nineties at the time that Mandela was released from incarceration, whites were a mere 13% of the total population of the country. Some 6 million whites within a total population of some 45,000,000 dominated every facet of life. Apartheid was not viable on any level, ranging from deprivation of basic human rights to the very present danger of a disastrous bloodbath. Thus the de Klerk (white) government embarked on an epic change of direction.
With respect to comparing the personalities, leadership and decision making of Mandela and Barghouti, it is my view that Barghouti is no Mandela. But there are similarities. Both sought education as a means of self development, both have led a cause for their people, both have proven powerful leadership skills and both were sentenced to several terms of life imprisonment. It is important to note that both in Gaza and the West Bank, Barghouti is seen as the most popular Palestinian leader if free elections were to be held, and there is solid data to prove this.
However Barghouti has made some devastating errors of judgment, which in my view cast a shadow on any attempt at some kind of trust situation, such as a release from prison and an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation. The worst error in my opinion, and one that questions his judgment skills, is the second intifada. Let’s remember that the second intifada which evolved in the early 2000s was engineered by Barghouti, specifically at a time when intensive negotiations had been taking place between Israel, a Palestinian delegation headed by Arafat and the US with Clinton as a facilitator. These were based roughly on the Olso accords and the need to fine-tune and translate these into a final agreement. To recall, Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Netanyahu won the next election however when Barak took over, he attempted to take a peace initiative forward. The Clinton talks in the year 2000 ended without agreement and a tense and dangerous period followed with questions regarding the future of peace and reconciliation. Only a match was needed to set this haystack on fire.
Some blame Barak for allowing Sharon to ascend to the temple mount. But the second intifada was engineered, maneuvered and executed by Barghouti who saw an opportunity in the crisis to blow apart any reconciliation and, many assume, finally to take over leadership in place of Arafat – who had in fact failed.
Barghouti, to be honest, appears to be a political arsonist of the worst kind. He led the first intifada, he engineered and led the second intifada which has left a permanent scar on Israel and indeed on Palestinians. And just recently he has again hindered and embarrassed Palestinian leader Abbas, by calling for a third intifada…
There are, as of now – at least in the public domain – no reasonable ideas, suggestions, attempts, cooperation and state-building thinking coming out of Nafha Jail. He clearly seems to prefer spending precious time, dabbling in Palestinian politics from within his cell, shouting incendiary slogans to the world and basking in the limelight of surveys showing his popularity, rather than finding the Mandela way of problem solving and leadership.
If there is a change, and if and when such a new Barghouti emerges, we need to inspect, talk and focus. Until such time which may never come, he needs to initiate. Not Israel. We need to see indications of an enlightened creative Barghouti looking for solutions. But there is little or nothing to base it on at this time.