On his first trip to a foreign country after being released from prison, South African anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress (ANC) member Nelson Mandela (l), in Zambia to attend a meeting of the ANC National Executive Committeee, warmly greets PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on his arrival in Lusaka, Feb. 27, 1990. (Philip Littleton/AFP/Getty Images)
One of the more tiresome refrains of critics of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and freedom is “Where is the Palestinian Mandela?” Readers are invited to compare and contrast the supposedly pacifistic and flexible approach of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress of South Africa, which Mandela led, with the violence, ineptitude and inflexibility of Palestinian leaders and, indeed, of Palestinians collectively.
The latest such offering came from Roger Cohen, writing in The New York Times (though I saw the article, headlined “Israel, Palestine need a two-state peace” in Singapore’s Straits Times of July 24). Cohen’s twist on the Mandela theme was that both Israel and the Palestinians had to compromise in order to achieve peace (a not unreasonable comment in itself), and that the compromises involved “would be no more bitter than those accepted by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.”
This is a poor analogy. In South Africa, the African National Congress under Mandela never compromised on its central goal, which was the achievement of a democratic, non-racial South Africa, where people would not suffer discrimination because of their color. The ANC and its allies adopted the “Freedom Charter” on June 26, 1955 and stuck to it. Its clauses on the economy—public ownership of mines, banks and monopoly industry and land redistribution—were not made conditions of a deal between Mandela and F.W. de Klerk when the end of apartheid was negotiated in the early 1990s, but there was no compromise on the major elements concerning equality between black and white. Nor did Mandela or the ANC face demands from the outside world to be flexible, and accept some form of half-way house between apartheid and equality.
By contrast, the dominant political force among the Palestinians for half a century repeatedly compromised on its original goal. The Palestine Liberation Organization started out in 1964 by calling for the liberation of the whole of Palestine and only accepting as citizens Arabs “normally resident” before 1947. In 1969, the PLO’s parliament, the Palestine National Council, redefined the Palestinian goal as a “Palestinian democratic state…free of all forms of religious and social discrimination.” Five years later, however, it changed its goals again, to aiming for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—only 22 percent of its original claim. So in fact, the Palestinian leadership made a succession of withdrawals from demanding a restoration of all that the Palestinians lost in 1948, when Israel was founded—each time in the face of opposition from sectors of the Palestinian people.
Far from being rewarded by reciprocal Israeli concessions, each Palestinian retreat was greeted by demands to concede more. The present negotiating position of the entire Israeli political leadership, whether viewed as right or left of center, assumes that 1948 is a closed matter: there will be no restoration of Palestinian territory occupied then, nor any return of Palestinians expelled from those lands. When current Israeli leaders speak of their readiness to make “painful compromises,” the issue for them is how much of the land that Israel occupied in 1967 it will give up, how many settlements it will remove, and how much control over the resources and trade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip it will relinquish. The “compromise” they demand from the Palestinians is on all these issues of 1967, plus that of the right of return of Palestinians expelled in 1948, on which Israeli demands are less a compromise than a wholesale surrender.
In his New York Times column, Cohen sought to present the issue of the right of return as if it is a mere ploy: he relates, “As the Israeli novelist Amos Oz once told me: ‘The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. If exercised, there will be two Palestinian states and not one for Jews.’”
The fear expressed by Oz about the fate of Israel if Palestinian exiles returned to their original home areas represents the feelings of the vast majority of Israeli Jews, but that does not justify Oz or Cohen’s misrepresentation of the Palestinians’ perspective—not to mention their rights under international law. To accept Oz and Cohen’s argument would mean to consider that none of the Palestinians scattered around the region are sincere in wanting to go home: that they could happily settle down anywhere in the world, but choose not too simply out of a desire to liquidate Israel.
There is nothing false or synthetic about the love that Palestinians in the diaspora have for their country or their desire to return to their homeland. It is one thing to argue about the practicality or otherwise of putting into effect the right of return (see Salman Abu Sitta’s “The Right of Return Is Inevitable,” December 2010Washington Report, p. 15), but quite another to refuse to recognize the sincerity of the feelings of exiled Palestinians. Admirers of the State of Israel wax lyrical about “the Jews longing to return to their homeland for 2,000 years,” yet choose to regard Palestinians who remain attached to their homeland after 65 years of exile as extreme and motivated by vengeance and sheer bloody-mindedness.
To return to the South African analogy: what was achieved with the dismantling of apartheid and the establishment of democracy for all was not just the realization of Mandela’s goal. It was also the achievement of a settlement that conformed to international human rights standards and United Nations resolutions. Neither of these represent some sort of intermediate compromise position between the former apartheid regime and the ANC: they represent principles which were consistent with the position of the ANC and not of the apartheid regime.
If the international community insisted on the settlement of the Palestine question on the basis of international human rights standards and the resolutions of the United Nations, there can be no question that this would be consistent with the realization of Palestinian aspirations. Instead, Israel, thanks to U.S. support, is allowed to treat these standards and resolutions as irrelevant, or to accept them only with its own peculiar interpretation of their meaning, and to insist on a negotiating process that is based on the existing balance of power, rather than on right or principle. The South African precedent strongly indicates that this is no basis for a durable settlement. Mandela was clear in his mind about that.