When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, South Africa was a catastrophe waiting to happen. Had Nelson been anything but Mandela – anything but that exquisitely modulated blend of common sense, compassion and authority – the whole place could well have gone up in flames. I was there in the days leading up to the 1994 elections, when Zulu impis were marching through the streets of downtown Johannesburg and die-hard racists were planting bombs and threatening a race war. Things were falling apart and the center wasn’t holding; South Africa was on the brink of civil war.
It’s no exaggeration to say that one man held it together. Had it not been for Mandela – for his dedication to the proposition that people can live together despite their differences, as well as for the profound influence he had over black, and increasingly white, South Africans – things might have turned out very, very badly. One man can – and did – make a difference.
It’s depressing to think of how many lives might have been saved, had Mandela been able to play a legitimate political role during the 27 years he spent in prison. How millions of kids might have been educated and groomed for productive lives, instead of being thrust into poverty and crime. How so many of the problems facing South Africa today might have been forestalled, had an evolutionary political transition been able to happen.
I don’t know if Marwan Barghouti is a Mandela-in-waiting. People of that caliber are very few and far between. What I do know is that the numerous similarities between the path of the imprisoned Palestinian leader and that of the South African elder statesman could serve as a positive guide to the future, were Israel prepared to see them. As it is, Israel seems to be doing its utmost to emulate the mistakes made by the architects of apartheid when confronted by a genuinely legitimate and popular leader.
Barghouti, formerly a prominent Palestinian politician and avowed supporter of peace between his people and Israel, has been languishing in an Israeli prison since 2002. Like Mandela, he spent many years talking peace while others were indulging in violence. And, again like Mandela, he eventually turned to armed rebellion, when he no longer saw any road open to peaceful compromise. From his prison cell, Barghouti has continued to call for a negotiated settlement with Israel and for Palestinian unity. That, too, mirrors the role that Mandela played during the latter part of his long imprisonment.
In the early Sixties, Mandela abandoned formal politics, went underground and co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, the African National Congress liberation army. He was captured, convicted on charges of sabotage and treason in 1964 and sentenced to life in prison. The apartheid regime called him a terrorist.
Barghouti was an outspoken supporter of the 1994 Oslo Accords but grew disillusioned with both the failure of Israel to implement the agreements and the corruption of the Palestinian Authority. By the summer of 2000, he was warning that “new forms of military struggle” would characterize the next intifada, which duly broke out in the autumn of that year. He was detained in April 2002, convicted on charges of masterminding attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences. Israel calls him a murderer.
Mandela survived 27 years in prison to become president of South Africa and an international icon of tolerance. What will become of Barghouti?
Mandela and Barghouti are both rational and – yes – moderate men, living in irrational times. The tragedy of Mandela, and of South Africa as a whole, was that it took over a generation of insanity before his moderation was recognized. Israel is showing every sign of repeating that mistake with Barghouti.
Irredentist regimes operate in a black-and-white world. They can’t tolerate reason on the part of their opponents because it shows up their own lack of reason. Their opponents have to be demonized; portrayed in such a way that any means of combatting them are acceptable. For years, the South African media characterized Joe Slovo, the exiled head of Umkonto we Sizwe, as a KGB colonel. He was no such thing, of course, but it helped sustain apartheid by reinforcing the red-under-the-bed fears of white South Africans.
Israel is comfortable with the rejectionists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, because they are a counterpoint to our own rejectionism. Their fundamentalism and all-or-nothing approach aligns neatly with our own. An irrational enemy justifies irrationality on our part. Ahmadinejad is such a perfect partner for Netanyahu that he could have been manufactured by an Israeli high-tech company.
We’re happy dealing with madmen and fanatics. What we don’t know is how to deal with a Barghouti or a Mandela. Discussing issues in a reasoned way with rational people is not our strong suit.
Marwan Barghouti is probably the only person who can unite the fractured Palestinians and lead them in serious peace negotiations with Israel. For that reason, and not because he’s a convicted murderer, he is likely to spend a lot more time in jail.
Israel released numerous mass murders in the recent Shalit prisoner exchange, but refused to let go of Barghouti, It’s OK if run-of-the-mill terrorists go back to murder and mayhem; Israel has enough cannon fodder. But a man who is genuinely committed to peace and has the legitimacy to unite the Palestinians in its pursuit is far too dangerous to release.