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Mandela and Arafat, Part I and Part II

By James Zogby

Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, December 23, 2013


Remembering Nelson Mandela’s Extraordinary Legacy

All of us need to do more in supporting the struggle of the people of Palestine for self-determination; in supporting the quest for peace, security and friendship in this region” – Nelson Mandela 

As we remember our hero Nelson Mandela who passed away yesterday at the age of 95, we too are reflecting on his extraordinary legacy. Having suffered under the wrath of oppression as a political prisoner for 27 years, he emerged with unwavering conviction and extraordinarily, with genuine reconciliation. In his historic speech as President of South Africa at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in 1997, he reminded us that “the temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own…yet we would be less than human if we did so.” Having defeated the abhorrent system of apartheid in South Africa, he chose to lead his country, but also continue the struggle for human rights worldwide.  Like the rest of the world, we mourn the loss of this great man.  

The above picture of Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat hangs at AAI and is signed by both men. The Nelson Mandela quote from 1990 reads: "There are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO. We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel..."

Read the full address by President Nelson Mandela at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People here.

Below, in an article for Huffington Post, AAI President Jim Zogby gives the backstory on the photo:

Mandela and Arafat

In late February of 1990, just two weeks after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela met with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat. Afterwards Mandela spoke publicly of his affinity with the Palestinian people and his support for their struggle. He described the parallels between the two peoples' struggles for justice, saying in part.

"There are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO. We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel..."

That was 1990, when it was taboo in the U.S. to have any contact with the PLO. Because Americans had a double standard when it came to addressing Palestinian rights and/or had been cowed into silence about Israeli behavior, many were shocked that Mandela would not only praise the PLO but would also compare the Palestinian struggle against colonization and occupation with the campaign against apartheid. But Mandela would not be silenced. The man stood firm reminding those who questioned him that the PLO had always been an ally of his African National Congress (ANC), while Israel had been an ally and arms' supplier to the South African apartheid regime. At one point he said "Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians." For supporters of Palestinian rights, all of this was exhilarating and validating.

I was so moved by Mandela's courage and his commitment to speak the truth about Palestinians that I made a poster commemorating the Mandela-Arafat embrace including an excerpt of his words.

I met Nelson Mandela a few times. On one occasion, he told me how thankful he continued to be for the early support Algeria and Egypt had provided to the ANC and to him personally. On another, in 1991, I remembered to bring a copy of the poster and asked him to sign it. He looked at it, smiled and said about Arafat "he is a friend and a good man."
Four years later I remembered to bring the poster to Arafat asking him to sign it.
That poster has hung in my office for more than two decades as a reminder of the real Mandela -- the brave and always honest fighter for justice and of his strong support for the Palestinian people.


Mandela and Arafat II

Last week, I wrote a piece about a poster (above) that has been hanging in my office for more than two decades.  It features a photo of Nelson Mandela embracing PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat taken when the two leaders first met following Mandela's release from prison. The poster also included a quote from Mandela in which he likened his struggle against apartheid to the struggle of the Palestinian people. I noted that I was pleased to have had the poster signed by both men.

Some readers raised objections to the piece and made disparaging remarks about the Palestinian leader - the kindest of which was to point out the obvious fact that "Arafat was no Mandela." While that statement was, of course, true, it missed the point. I wasn't comparing Arafat to Mandela, I was quoting Mandela who was pointing out the similarities between the South African and Palestinian peoples' struggles.

Some of the other comments were so ignorant of history and reality and so focused on the failings of Arafat that I was reminded of a time eighteen years ago when I was testifying at US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the state of the Palestinian economy. After I finished my remarks, a Senator challenged me asking, "Why aren't the Palestinians able to get their economy going? Why can't Arafat be more like South Africa's Nelson Mandela or Russia's Boris Yeltsin?"

The questions were "no brainers" that could only have been asked by someone who was either unaware of the Palestinian reality or so blinded by prejudice that they could not or would not see that reality even it were pointed out to them. I thought it best to assume that my questioner was simply unaware and so I answered respectfully. 

The fundamental difference between Arafat's situation and that faced the South African and Russian leaders was that when Mandela and Yeltsin assumed the presidency in their respective countries, they inherited states that were fully sovereign entities with functioning institutions and sustainable economies. They controlled their own borders, were able to freely import and export goods, collect revenues, and establish mutually beneficial state-to-state relations.  

In contrast, what the Palestinian leader received as a result of his agreement with the Israelis were several tiny cantons of densely populated and largely underdeveloped areas of the West Bank and Gaza that remained surrounded by Israeli-controlled territories. Palestinians did not control their borders and were, therefore, unable to conduct normal commerce with the outside world.  

In my capacity as co-chair of Builders for Peace (a project launched by then Vice-President Al Gore to promote private sector investment in the Palestinian territories), I had learned first-hand how Israeli control over imports and exports and even the movement of goods within the territories created severe impediments to investment and economic development in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Additionally, within a year of the signing of their agreement with Israel, Israel denied most Palestinians access to Jerusalem and its surrounding areas. While attention is paid to the religious dimension of the city, Jerusalem was more than that. It was the Palestinian's metropol - the hub of their commercial and cultural life. It was the center of the West Bank, housing the region's major employers, and its medical, educational, financial, and social institutions. And so, when in 1994 Israel severed Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank it was as if the region had lost its heart. To understand the significance of this closure, imagine the impact on residents of northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland if they were suddenly cut off from entering Washington, DC.

The two realities - the Palestinian and the South African - were so profoundly different. The only way they might have been comparable was if Mandela had become the mayor of Soweto, with the apartheid regime still governing the rest of the country. But Mandela and the ANC did not assume control of just the areas of the country populated largely by blacks, he and his movement won the right to compete in elections and then the right to govern the entire country.

In contrast, the best that Arafat could hope for and what he agreed to settle for was the right to establish an independent state on the 22% of Palestine that Israel had occupied in the aftermath of the 1967 war. That is what he believed he would get. But what he got instead was the "right" to establish a captive "provisional self-governing authority" on less than one-fifth of that 22% - with limited rights to operate beyond those areas.

By the time I was testifying (about three years after Palestinians had signed their agreement with the Israelis), Palestinian income levels had declined, unemployment had sharply increased, as had Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied lands, and Palestinians had grown restive and increasingly frustrated at the failure of peace to change the quality of their lives.  

There were, to be sure, profound errors made by the Palestinian leader - not the least of which was the trust he placed in the agreements he signed. But the mistakes in judgment, the lack of strategic vision, and the reliance on violence do not, alone, explain the reasons for the Palestinian dilemma. Arafat was handed a bad situation over which he had little control and few tools at his disposal and told that he was expected to perform like Mandela and Yeltsin! He was, in reality, being set up to fail. To place the blame solely on his shoulders is either ignorant of reality or just downright cruel.    





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